Jail inmate Seth Suko, a registered sex offender, managed to evade capture for about a day and a half as jail staff relied on past logs instead of doing physical inmate counts.

One of the details that has emerged following the latest escape from the Lake Region Correctional Facility, which inmates have broken out of three times in the last three years, is that corrections officers failed to notice missing inmate Seth Suko for five counts over three shifts - about 30 hours total.

Director Rob Johnson reports that seven corrections officers participated in the five counts. He pointed to a lack of training as a cause of the errors, though he also said that there are no excuses for the latest escape and the lack of awareness of the inmate count.

“Can I defend the most recent situation? I can’t,” Johnson said. “There were errors that were made by our staff. We have formal count rounds that are to be done. Their log was being completed, but when they were doing the count rounds, they weren’t actually counting. They were just basing their counts off of the numbers that they had on their paperwork.”

Suko managed to evade capture for about a day and a half as jail staff relied on past logs instead of doing physical counts.

Johnson acknowledged that the officer who was charged with monitoring Suko and other inmates also failed to a do a count after bringing them back inside from a recreation area.

“There were nine inmates out in the rec yard,” Johnson said. “The count didn’t happen upon re-entry into the facility.”

By then, Suko had slipped over one fence, under another and was long gone. Johnson says that administration at the jail is in the process of disciplining more than one corrections officer involved in the incident, though he said that there are no plans to fire any of them.

Capt. Duane Armstrong, the head corrections officer at the jail and formerly of the North Dakota Highway Patrol, resigned immediately following the news of the escape.

Johnson stressed the need to find an incoming captain that has a strong background in corrections while also pointing out the high turnover rate for C.O.s at the facility.

“To get someone in that has extensive correctional knowledge and background into the captain position is going to be vital for us,” Johnson said. “Our experience level in corrections has been really poor. In March, when I ran the numbers, our average term of employment for our correctional officers, including our four sergeants, was 11 months. For a correctional facility, it’s really difficult to operate with (such) high turnover.”

Though the jail houses inmates from around the state, the large majority have not been charged with violent felonies.

However, one inmate, Matthew Little, has been charged with attempted murder following an incident in Cando in February, and many others have long rap sheets, often for domestic assault, terrorizing and other offenses. Suko is a registered sex offender.

Despite the jail’s poor recent record of inmate escapes and the sometimes violent records of the inmates housed there, Johnson indicated that he doesn’t think that the security situation at the facility presents a danger to the public.

“I don’t believe people have anything to worry about,” Johnson said.

Another issue that comes with the latest escape, according to Johnson, is a shift of focus from exploring treatment options for inmates with drug and mental health issues to jail security. Johnson recently addressed the Ramsey County Commission and introduced the Stepping Up Initiative, which is a national initiative developed to help local jails get treatment to inmates who need it and to reduce the numbers of those who are incarcerated while suffering from mental illness.

It appears that those plans will be de-prioritized for at least the near future.

“The (treatment) stuff is going to end up taking a back seat for awhile,” Johnson said. “I had shifted my focus a little bit and was working on the Stepping Up Initiative, trying to work on the finances for the Law Enforcement Center, so I probably wasn’t paying as much attention to the jail as I should have been.”

Ed Brown, who serves on both the Ramsey County Commission and the LEC Board, was contacted in order to get the county’s input on the escape and the ramifications for tentative recent plans to address drug and mental health treatment among inmates.

Brown largely deferred to Johnson regarding the escape and its fallout. He did offer a vote of confidence in the director.
“He’s doing a good job,” Brown said.

The Journal left a message for Mark Olson, chairman of the Ramsey County Commission and also a member of the LEC Board.

That board meets again Wednesday, July 19 at 8 a.m., while the County Commission meets next Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.