DA, jail administrator at odds on furloughs

Sharna Johnson

A weekend medical furlough that ended with an inmate leading police on a high-speed chase through Curry County is an example of jail officials acting outside the scope of their duties, according to the district attorney.

But the jail administrator says it’s ultimately up to the judge.

Justin Steelman, 32, was released April 22 when jail officials called two judges after business hours and received approval to give him a medical furlough.

Steelman was released from the hospital the following day, but didn’t return to the jail and three days later led police from local agencies on a high speed pursuit through Clovis, ending when he was forced off the road and crashed in Farwell. He was returned to the jail.

Police have said Steelman has a history of evading police and presented a danger to the public and officers.

Background information like that, including criminal history, flight risk and whether an inmate is a danger to themselves or others is something the jail is not in a position to know or express to a judge, District Attorney Matt Chandler said.

Requesting a furlough is a legal procedure, he said, that should be filed by a defendant’s attorney with prosecutors and victims given an opportunity to talk to the judge.

“The position of the district attorney’s office is and has been that any time jail administration starts filing motions for furloughs, they’re well beyond the scope of their duties,” he said.

“(The proper filing process) allows the prosecution a fair opportunity to respond and provide the court with all the necessary information to make a sound decision … but essentially the detention center is filing ex parte motions with the court.”

Discouraged and often considered improper, ex parte motions are those made to a judge in favor of one side in a case when all parties are not present.

Chandler declined to further discuss Steelman or his case because his office is overseeing prosecution in the case.

Jail Administrator Keith Norwood said he believes sometimes furloughs are needed and ultimately it is up to the judges if they want to grant them.

“When they built this jail they did not build it in a manner that meets the needs of the type of individuals we have. We have to look at alternatives … in ensuring they get medical care,” he said.

“We do look at all the information and we convey it to the judges and the judges look at the data that we have and make an objective decision.”

Steelman was released from the jail April 22 under orders to return after he had been treated at Plains Regional Medical Center, according to statements made to investigators by the judges who approved his release.

At 6 p.m. April 22, the jail called for an ambulance to take Steelman to PRMC because he was having a seizure at the jail, dispatch records show.

According to furlough paperwork obtained Friday by the Clovis News Journal through a Freedom of Information request, Curry County Magistrate Judge Richard Hollis approved the furlough over the phone the night of April 22 when he was called by a jail lieutenant.

Documents also show Roosevelt County Judge Linda Short, who is presiding over a case against Steelman in her court, did the same when called. She faxed a copy of her order to jail officials.

Steelman was released from PRMC at 11 p.m. April 23 and nearly an hour later, jail officials contacted law enforcement to report he hadn’t returned to the jail.

Hollis declined to comment.

Short did not respond to telephone messages.

Jail officials turned over documents on seven medical furloughs Friday when asked by the CNJ for records on all furloughs in the past year.

According to those records, not including Steelman, furloughs were given for:

• A man charged with a DWI who tried to hang himself in a jail bathroom.

• A man charged with a probation violation recovering from shoulder surgery.

• An unspecified medical furlough for man charged with battery on a household member at the request of the arresting officer.

• A man charged with battery against a household member who was hospitalized at PRMC.

• A woman charged with drug trafficking, distribution and receipt of stolen property for unspecified medical issues.

• A man charged with aggravated assault and battery against a household member and intimidation of a states witness for unspecified medical issues.

• A man charged as a fugitive from justice from another state based on his “physical and medical condition and repeated attempts to harm self while in custody.”

Past furlough issues:

• June 11, 2008 — Convicted drug trafficker Shane May was released for a medical furlough and failed to return to the jail for transfer to the Department of Corrections to serve his sentence. May, 32, was captured three days later.

• August 2006 — Law enforcement learned Philip Littlefield, 38, had been missing unreported for more than five weeks after failing to return to the jail from a medical furlough. He was captured two weeks later.

• July 2006 — A bench warrant was issued for Manuel Overman, who failed to report back to the jail after being released on furlough for a court-ordered treatment program. Overman remains at large.

• July 10, 2004 — Inmate Edgar Perales walked out of Plains Regional Medical Center while on a medical furlough. He was arrested Oct. 27, 2004.

• July 1, 2004 — Inmate Paul Salazar walked out of Plains Regional Medical Center while at the hospital on furlough and was captured July 9, 2004.