Vacant Guard Towers Aided Maximum-Security Prison Escape

Guard towers at the federal penitentiary at Atwater, CA remain unmanned even after a daring prison escape.

Guard towers at the federal penitentiary at Atwater, CA remain unmanned even after a daring prison escape.

By Christopher Zoukis

The federal prison in Atwater, California is maximum-security, so the May 12 escape of inmate Guaymar Cabrera-Hernandez, a 26-year-old Guatemalan in the country illegally and already once deported, might have surprised prison officials.

The fugitive was caught within a day, and continues serving a nearly 10-year sentence for carjacking, intent to commit robbery, and other charges, including those related to a previous escape and escape attempts. The most recent carjacking charge stemmed from an incident that occurred less than a half-hour after Cabrera-Hernandez was released from a Maryland jail.

But the escape may actually not have been too much of a surprise, given a glaring weakness in the prison’s defenses against escapes: its five perimeter guard towers, designed as a final line of defense for detecting escape attempts, were completely unmanned when Cabrera-Hernandez made it out of Atwood.

The story gets even more potentially embarrassing: leaving the guard towers vacant wasn’t a momentary lapse; there haven’t been guards in Atwood’s guard towers for almost six years. Instead, the facility had been relying on its system of fences to block escapes — three layers of fences topped with razor concertina wire, with a supposedly “lethal fence,” an outer layer of electrified fencing.

Prison officials might have experienced even more embarrassment when they reconstructed how Cabrera-Hernandez made his way out. A videotape ordered by the warden to re-enact how the inmate escaped showed that by scaling a drainpipe, he was able to travel along a building rooftop for part of his escape route, which eventually passed directly by two unstaffed guard towers.

In the videotape, a prison staffer demonstrated how, by climbing up the insulators at the edge of the supposedly “lethal fence,” Cabrera-Hernandez avoided triggering a deadly electric shock. His path after scaling the fences was easy to track, since he had cut himself on the concertina wire, leaving a trail of bloodspots.

The Atwood officials reportedly sent the videotape to Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) headquarters staff. A spokesperson there told a reporter the agency could not comment on the effectiveness of guard towers or fencing systems in deterring or detecting escapes “for security reasons.” Atwood officials might also be cringing at the local Merced County sheriff’s statement that prison officials did not inform his department of the escape until four hours after they learned Cabrera-Hernandez was unaccounted for.

A local union official for prison guards also noted that guard towers are left unmanned at BOP’s largest prison in Coleman, Florida, which has more than 2,600 inmates in maximum-security units. Both BOP prison guards and non-security staffers have complained in recent years about non-security staff, such as nurses and medical technicians, being assigned to security duties to make up for staffing shortages, despite the non-security staffers’ lack of training for such duties.

Congressional committees in each chamber say they’re planning to look into security questions raised by the Atwood escape. House Oversight indicated an interest in viewing the warden’s escape re-enactment video, while Senate Homeland Security has said it wants to examine fencing and other security-related issues across BOP. In the meantime, Atwood’s vacant guard towers remain completely unstaffed.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.