Meeks: Jail staff ‘negligent’

Published 1:37 am Wednesday, January 7, 2009

It was jail staff negligence that led to the New Year’s Day escape of a federal inmate, Sheriff Dennis Meeks said Tuesday.

T.C. Harris Jr., 42, had been housed in the county jail since Dec. 19 under the federal inmate housing contract with the U.S. Marshal’s Service after he violated his federal probation conditions. However, sometime after 12:30 p.m., Harris, a Whistler, Ala., native, allegedly scaled a side fence at the jail and escaped.

Meeks said before scaling the outside perimeter fence, Harris pried open a section of the fencing surrounding the outdoor exercise yard — a move that, while captured on video, escaped the notice of jail staff.

“There was a weak spot in chain fence that we had not noticed and that’s how (Harris) got out of that area,” Meeks said. “(The opening in the fence was) a very small area, and he wasn’t a big guy. Once he got out of the exercise yard he was able to get out over an outside perimeter fence.”

There was no guard posted at the exercise yard, and staff members were required to utilize cameras to watch inmates’ activities outside.

“We had cameras up,” he said. “We had folks supposed to be watching the cameras. That was negligence on our part. I’ll be that frank and honest on it. It is something we will be addressing in a meeting Friday morning.”

The meeting on Friday will be held so that jail staff can “go over what happened and how it happened and why it happened,” Meeks said.

“As for the security of our jail, our jail is fine,” he said. “There is no problem there. The problem was we had this weak spot in the fence that was not noticed. Had we not had that, (Harris) would have never gotten out of the exercise yard.”

Repairs to the fence are currently under way, he said.

Harris was captured nine hours later in Mobile County after receiving a ride from a local couple that was unaware he had recently escaped from jail.

Meeks said he doesn’t feel any additional charges will be filed against other inmates, nor does the escape in any way impact the federal housing contract.

“I feel like (Harris) did this on his own,” he said. “Other inmates were in the yard at the time, but in viewing the video, in my opinion, it doesn’t appear anyone else was helping him.

“Once (Harris) got out, he talks this couple into taking him to Mobile, and how he did that is beyond me,” he said.

“(The escape) doesn’t make us second guess the (federal) contract, and I don’t think it’s going to affect our contract in any way,” he said. “It could have easily been anyone from any other block. It just happened to (have occurred) at the time when the federal inmates were out in the yard.”

Meeks declined to comment on how jail staff noticed Harris’ absence and what, if any, administrative changes would be made as a result of the incident.

Harris now faces federal escape charges as a result of his New Year’s Day escape.