Inmate walkaway prompts work crew concerns

Officals say the risk of inmates walking off jobs is rare

Walkaway worries: Are work crews safe?

BEND, Ore. - Getting out from behind bars to work outdoors is a privilege an inmate has to earn.

And not just any inmate can earn it -- Deschutes County Sheriff's Capt. Michael Espinoza says they only select inmates with conviction on non-violent crimes.

"(Inmates) not only benefit from giving back to the community, but also benefit through the rehabilitative process," Espinoza said Wednesday.

But after a Deer Ridge state prison inmate walked off Tuesday from a work crew out near Bend's Phil's Trail -- prompting a manhunt that's still under way -- some wonder if the work programs are worth the risk.

"If it had been a girl riding her bike or jogging out there by herself. it could have went the other way really quick," said a cyclist who was riding his bike at the time and saw the crew working in the woods.

He said it took him a while to figure out what the group in the orange outfits was doing.

"Right next to the trail -- there were no signs saying a party was working, and I just think it was kind of strange there was nobody watching," he said.

Deer Ridge Correctional Facility spokeswoman Marissa Wilson said Wednesday there was one supervisor with the crew -- which standard protocol -- and there were at least a couple of warning signs up  near the workers.

Espinoza oversees the Deschutes County Jail's inmate work program, which is  not related to the Deer Ridge operation. He said public safety is paramount for such programs.

"By the time we get people on the work crews, they've gone through several layers of reviews, so we try to find the right match to minimize any potential of putting the community at risk," he said.

Espinoza says each crew with Deschutes County has at least two staff members, and there's always more help nearby.

"We also notify their patrol staff in those areas so they know we're there. We mark area with signage, the inmates wear special clothing," Espinoza said.

But in the end, there's always more inmates than staff. And they usually have tools.

It's also about a sense of trust.

"We definitely have a need to use tools, depending on the job," he said. "Any time you put those items in a person's hand, there's a risk that comes with that, so our staff has to be conscious of that."

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