Of the Baker City Herald

The next inmate who escapes from the Powder River Correctional Facility may not have even decided which way to run before dozens of rural Baker County residents know his name, his face and his criminal record.

Simultaneously, flags made from retina-burning orange nylon and emblazoned with a big E will announce his felonious flight from Halfway to Sumpter, Huntington to Haines.

And almost all of this information will be spread by volunteers.

Powder Rivers escape notification system the first of its kind in Oregon, and perhaps in the nation is the creation of Jan Kerns, who lives on a Baker Valley ranch.

Her inspiration was an escape that occurred Sept. 28, 1999.

On that day, Powder River inmate Cecil Delana Caba walked away from a crew working in the Baker City watershed.

Kerns, who had workers out harvesting potatoes, said she didnt learn of the escape until a friend whos an Oregon State Police trooper phoned her that evening.

She shuddered when she thought about the unattended pickup trucks scattered across the Kerns ranch as workers put up the spuds just five miles or so from where Caba was last seen.

What was needed, Kerns decided that day, was a system by which Baker Countys rural residents could learn about an escape as soon as possible after prison officials confirmed an inmate was gone.

Creating that system was Kerns top priority when she was appointed to Powder Rivers new advisory committee later that fall.

Kerns, along with other committee members and local police officials, unveiled the system at a press conference Friday at the minimum-security prison.

But in reality the system debuted, unexpectedly, earlier this month.

Less than a week before Kerns had scheduled the second trial run, Randall Dean Lamarr walked away from an inmate crew working near Sumpter.

Within minutes, phones were ringing and Lamarrs mug shot was sliding out of printers across the county.

Telephone calls and e-mail are the heart of the notification system, Kerns said Friday.

The rural parts of the county everything outside the Baker City limits is split into 14 neighborhoods, she said.

In each neighborhood Kerns picked one key person, and at least one backup.

She said she chose people who she knew to be reliable and well-respected by their neighbors, and who were home more often than not.

When the prison reports a missing inmate, the county, through its 911 system, calls the contact person in each neighborhood and relays all pertinent information, including the inmates name, last known location, clothing and approximate time of escape.

Kerns said each key person has his or her own list of at least four neighbors to call, each of whom will continue the telephone tree.

Key people, or one of their contacts, also have one or more of the bright-orange flags to fly.

Each neighborhoods key person also is responsible for printing the escapees mug shot, which the county attaches to the e-mail message.

The system is capable of delivering information about an escape to 84 homes within 15 minutes, Kerns said.

She said she was pleased with its performance after Lamarr escaped.

I think we did really well, Kerns said. Weve got neighbors talking to neighbors.

Sheriff Troy Hale and Oregon State Police Lt. Reg Madsen, OSPs station commander in Baker City, agreed.

This program is valuable, Madsen said. Its a big county.

Hale said the county reached a contact person quickly in 13 of the 14 neighborhoods.

Kerns said a local UPS driver reportedly remarked that he was surprised at how many places he saw Lamarrs photo displayed just a couple hours after the escape.

Kerns emphasized that the purpose of the notification system is to notify county residents, not to encourage vigilantism.

Were just acting as extra eyes and ears for law enforcement, she said. Anyone who notices anything unusual should immediately call 911.

Ron Stoaks, maintenance supervisor for the Baker 5J School District, said the early warning of Lamarrs escape gave the district time to notify all its bus drivers, and to call parents who live in the Sumpter area.

Some parents decided to pick up their kids in Baker City that day rather than have them dropped off at the bus stop.

Kerns said this months unexpected real-world trial uncovered a couple of flaws in the system.

One was the flags.

Kerns said the white flags used after Lamarrs escape were too small. The new flags are larger and brighter, and the letter E is made from reflective tape that shows up at night.

The prison hopes to have at least 45 flags available soon.

Hale said volunteers also will need to remove the flags sooner if the escapee has been caught, or if prison officials believe the inmate has left the area.

Lamarr has not been caught, but officials dont believe he has remained in Baker County.

He is one of three Powder River escapees who remain at large.

Fifty-five inmates have escaped from the prisons custody since it opened in November 1989.

Of those, 28 walked away from a crew working outside the prisons walls, and 20 escaped from within. However, just two have managed that feat since officials had razor wire installed atop the perimeter fence several years ago.

The other seven inmates failed to return from short-term leave, a privilege no longer offered.