Editorial: Deer Ridge prison owes the community some answers

Prison escapes, while not everyday occurrences, are not all that uncommon. There have been at least three in Oregon so far this year, including one last Sunday from the Deer Ridge Correctional Institution outside of Madras.

Clinton Orvill Swearingen II, 31, climbed over a fence topped by razor wire at the Madras prison, stole an SUV and left. He was still at large Friday at the deadline for this page.

You can bet officials at the institution are closely examining everything associated with Swearingen’s escape.

High on their list of things to fix must be the prison’s warning system for its neighbors. It didn’t work Sunday, and, in fact, some neighbors didn’t find out about the escape for about 10 hours. Three or four families, meanwhile, live along what is essentially a driveway into the prison. They’re the facility’s nearest neighbors, and getting them timely information about such an event is critical.

What failed at Deer Ridge on Sunday was a telephone system that was supposed to call neighbors when escapes occur, says Marissa Wilson, public information officer for the facility. It was set up shortly after the institution opened its doors seven years ago, though the contractor who operates it is fairly new to the job.

Apparently, Wilson says, not all telephone numbers from the original system transferred successfully to the new operator.

There could be a number of reasons. Families are increasingly dropping landline telephones and replacing them with cellular ones. If new numbers haven’t been placed in the system, they cannot be called. By the same token, people leave homes and new families move in; again, officials may be unaware of the change.

That cannot let officials off the hook, however. While no one expects them to keep track of the comings and goings of their neighbors, they must reach out and inform neighbors of the need to do report changes themselves. Wilson says they’re already working on a plan to do that. And, if there were mechanical problems with the system, those, too, must be fixed.

Sunday’s escape shed light on what must be considered serious security flaws at Deer Ridge.