Failsafe procedures and an avoidable Cage Car escape
Views from Within
By Greg Wellman
The late 1960s and early ’70s in the criminal justice system were primitive, though some would say not much progress has been made at all over the decades. Just tune in to the nightly news.
As Probation Officers back then, we pretty much had life spelled out for us when filing new charges or dealing with the Courts.
For instance, we were tasked with filing the documents alleging whatever, and proving to the Judge the Juvenile had indeed done what we wrote up in the petition before the Court.
Only in the most serious cases did we bring in the DA or any Deputies. They had their hands full with adult offenders. Usually we made a practice of talking to a Deputy DA via phone just to insure we didn’t make serious mistakes.
One particular Probationer had been charged, was locked up in the old Juvenile Hall across from County Hospital, and was on the Court Docket for “jurisdictional” hearing. In other words, to prove the allegations true or not.
Now the Juvenile had a right at all times to a Public Defender, and usually for the Court Hearing, he or she was represented, and just like today, sometimes better than others.
This young fellow was in the habit of selling marijuana, in those times viewed like pretty serious law violations.
In fact, folks could buy the stuff by the Kilo, full of stems and junk, not the quality on the street today. From there it usually was put in baggies and sold to friends and hangers-on.
So the question was how to transport an incarcerated juvenile back and forth to court.
Never fear. We had an older car which had been retrofitted with a cage bolted to the inside of the vehicle and the back seat area had all handles operating the doors removed.
So no way anyone could escape right? SURE.
The policy was clear: Two POs were to accompany the juvenile at all times, and one PO would drive and the other sit in the back seat with the Juvenile who was required to be handcuffed. A real failsafe policy if followed.
Fast forward to the result: The juvenile was found “guilty” and was remanded back to Juvenile Hall to await sentencing. I do not recall what, if any, arrangements were made for schooling, surely improved in today’s system.
So the hearing being over, the handcuffed juvenile was placed in the backseat. My partner was driving the CAGE CAR — it certainly would be called something more empathetic today, I am sure.
So the handcuffed juvenile is firmly a passenger in the back seat, and, as a 22-year-old PO, I reasoned we had no need to have a PO sitting in the back seat.
After all, we had successfully written up charges (as directed) and had them sustained by the Court. Pretty heady stuff. Almost a cause for high fives, but the gesture had not appeared on the scene as yet.
So my partner took off. At the first or second stop light. Our handcuffed “prisoner” literally kicked the cage, and the bolts attaching it to the vehicle failed. Our guy was thin, athletic, and had the kick of a full-grown mule.
Worse, the left side of the cage itself pinned my partner briefly against the steering wheel and our prisoner escaped, HANDCUFFED!
I immediately felt sick. This was 100 percent my fault, and I did not deserve to be in this predicament. EXCEPT I DID.
We drove around 21st street all the way around to 16th. No sign of our passenger.
Going down an alley on 19th, we saw a leg behind a garbage can. I hopped out, retrieved our precious passenger and delivered him safely to Iris Garret’s hotel. She just shook her head in disbelief. (Iris Garrett, as I recall, served almost 40 years as Superintendent of our Juvenile Hall.)
To my way of thinking she was superhuman. Could size up just about anyone entering her Hall in a few minutes and be spot-on.
Well she certainly had my number on this day! Our Juvenile Justice Facility on Sandy Mush Road bears her name today.
I get chills just thinking about the incident. I should probably have been fired on the spot or at least severely disciplined. But 50-plus years ago, we had no depth in staffing (I guess).
I am most grateful for the learning experience and the lesson to be careful about reinforcing your own thinking.
I always think about the necessity of doing what we did and in the way we did it.
This young man had no no history of violent acts (except to our Cage Car) and would bet he got things figured out. My best wishes to him wherever he is.
Greg Wellman of Merced is a business consultant who has enjoyed a long career in local government, including service as probation officer, county department head, county administrator and city manager.