DEER LODGE — An escape from Montana State Prison this summer that ended in the shooting death of the inmate in Billings has prompted prison officials to tighten security procedures and search tactics.
Warden Leroy Kirkegard said the tragic outcome of the July escape drove him to review policies in dealing with potential escapes.
Dean Randolph Jess, 42, escaped from the prison on July 1, and remained on the run until he was shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy in Billings five days later.
Kirkegard told The Montana Standard Thursday that he and his staff reviewed the entire situation in order to fix problems and address weaknesses in the system. If another escape should occur, Kirkegard wants his staff to be prepared.
The warden said he deeply regrets this summer’s escape, which was the first since he took charge of the prison in November 2011.
“I take it personally,” Kirkegard said. “I don’t like putting the citizens of Montana at risk and I don’t like putting law enforcement at risk.”
On July 1, Jess was working with the prison’s motor vehicle maintenance program when he escaped. Prison reports indicate Jess’ regular supervisor was on vacation, and he was being supervised by another corrections officer. Jess got permission to drive a prison pickup truck outside the prison’s fenced area to go to a maintenance shop on the prison property to retrieve an auto part. Kirkegard said Jess didn’t have permission to leave the prison grounds without a supervisor.
“(Jess) convinced him (the corrections officer) that his normal supervisor let him do it all the time,” the warden said.
The inmate work roster also didn’t indicate that Jess was on a restricted list, so the front gate staff allowed Jess to leave the main prison.
The truck Jess was driving was found abandoned on the southern perimeter of the prison that day.
Law enforcement in Powell and Anaconda-Deer Lodge counties were notified the day of the escape. Prison staff as well as local law enforcement searched the area for nearly two days. Helicopters with the Montana Highway Patrol and Homeland Security also helped.
Kirkegard suspects Jess hid in the thick, brushy area around Racetrack for a few days. Searchers reported that the vegetation was so dense that they could only see a few feet in front of themselves.
Jess eventually stole a green Jeep Rubicon from near Anaconda and drove to Billings, where he was shot to death in a brief standoff with deputies on July 6 in a crowded Walmart parking lot.
The prison has since updated its work roster to better know which inmates are restricted to leave the main prison. Staff will be able to check the computerized system to immediately know which inmates are authorized to work outside the main facility.
The prison has an inmate population of just over 1,400. Of that, 192 inmates are part of the work reentry center, and are allowed to work on the prison’s 38,000-acre ranch. Inmates earn the privilege of being a part of this workforce by demonstrating a history of good behavior. These inmates are treated like “trusties,” although Kirkegard said “trusty” is an outdated term.
“We had to learn the hard way that you can’t trust anybody in prison,” he said.
Jess certainly gave no indication that he was planning to abscond.
Investigators spoke with his cellmate and other inmates and were told Jess didn’t say anything about planning an escape, according to Kirkegard. No evidence was found in his cell and the last phone call he made from the prison was in May, more than a month before his escape. No clear motive was found for his escape, except, perhaps, he was serving a long sentence, the warden said.
Jess was serving a 55-year prison sentence for felony sex offense (incest) in Park County. He had been in prison since 2005, according to prison spokeswoman Linda Moodry, and he wasn’t eligible for parole until 2030.
Kirkegard said Jess was described by fellow inmates as sort of a loner who didn’t talk much.
“He enjoyed being a mechanic and enjoyed his job,” Kirkegard said.
The warden plans to hold more training exercises to prepare for an escape. One problem with the last escape was the lack of available maps of the area around the prison. Kirkegard said he has since acquired updated maps.
“I want to make sure we don’t cover the same ground over and over again,” he said.
Communication was another problem during the July search. Not all the police radios from the various law enforcement departments were connecting. They often had to resort to communicating via cell phone, but even that was spotty in the remote areas.
Since 1991, 41 inmates have escape from Montana State Prison. Only one escapee is unaccounted for, Moodry said.
Kirkegard said he can’t guarantee there won’t be another escape, but he plans to be as prepared as possible. As long as there are inmates in prison, there will be attempts to flee.
“They learn how to have patience in prison, and they know how to wait for the opportunity to escape,” he said.