In a 48-hour stretch during January 2018, three men were booked into the Fresno County Jail. One was beaten into a coma. Two died soon afterward. Their cases kicked off a nightmarish year in a local jail where problems trace back to California’s sweeping 2011 prison downsizing and criminal justice reforms.
On the night of January 17, 2018, Lorenzo Herrera walked into the Fresno County Jail booking area and sat down for an interview. Yes, he had a gang history, an officer wrote on his intake form. But Herrera, 19, said he did not expect problems with others inside the gang pod he’d soon call home.
His parents had encouraged him to barter for books and newspapers – anything he could to preoccupy himself until his trial on burglary and assault charges. His father, Carlos Herrera, offered advice: “Just be careful, and only trust yourself.”
Herrera survived the violent chaos of the Fresno County Jail for 66 days, including living through a brawl that left another prisoner unconscious. Then, on an afternoon in March, jail officers found him strangled.
Herrera didn’t get a trial or a plea deal. He got a death sentence, his parents say. And even now, no one at the jail seems to know what happened.
The evening before Herrera entered the jail, Ernest Brock, 20, was also arrested and booked pending trial. Officers put him in a cell with a psychotic prisoner accused of rape who had refused to take medication and was beating his head against the walls. Brock made it three days inside before the cellmate choked him into a coma.
Yet a third prisoner arrived soon after Brock, booked for a five-year-old probation violation. Andre Erkins, 30, writhed in pain for hours before dying of previously undetected cardiac disease. The jail staff failed to notice his worsening health until it was too late.
Three bookings within 48 hours. Three young men jailed for different reasons. Three people who walked into the overcrowded Fresno County Jail and left on gurneys, dead or barely alive.
The fates of Herrera, Brock and Erkins set the stage for the deadliest year in at least two decades at the jail, a sprawling complex of jam-packed cells, filled with prisoners working their way through a clogged criminal justice system.
Eleven prisoners died last year from drug and alcohol withdrawal, suicide, medical complications and murder. Thirteen other people were beaten and hospitalized for multiple days.
The increase in violence and death in Fresno started soon after the state was ordered in 2011 by the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce its prison population. That’s when California officials approved sweeping reforms called “realignment,” shifting responsibility for thousands of offenders from state prisons to county jails.
While decreasing the overload in state prisons, the results in many county jails have been deadly. An investigation by McClatchy and ProPublica has found that many county jails have struggled to handle the influx of violent and mentally ill prisoners incarcerated for longer sentences than ever before. As a result, prisoners are dying in markedly higher numbers.
No other jail in California has seen a sharper increase in prisoner deaths than the Fresno County Jail, whose three buildings house more than 3,000 prisoners, mostly in the concrete cube known as the Main Jail in downtown Fresno. In the seven years before the 2011 realignment, 23 prisoners died in jail custody, data from the California Department of Justice shows. That figure more than doubled to 47 deaths during the seven years after the state shifted more responsibility to the county jails.
Only one Fresno County prisoner killed another in the seven years before realignment. Since then, four have died at the hands of other prisoners.
The problem is particularly acute in places like Fresno, Kern and Merced counties, inland stretches of California, where deaths have surged disproportionately, a data analysis by McClatchy and ProPublica found. These less affluent counties in California’s Central Valley watched prisoner homicides triple.
In the past seven years, some counties took advantage of the billions of dollars attached to California’s realignment efforts to address overcrowding. Others, the investigation shows, have viewed the changes as a burden.
The Fresno County Jail death toll illustrates how some counties have failed to institute reforms, keep up with federal court orders to improve conditions and prioritize prisoner well-being. As has long been the case, two-thirds of the people kept in jails are accused but not convicted.
Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said that the county jails hold many dangerous people, and that awful events, including deaths, are almost inevitable. A few years ago, Mims said, a prisoner hid a razor blade in his nasal cavity and cut his co-defendant in court.
“How long does it take to inhale a razor blade?” she said. “If you wanted absolutely no assaults on inmates, no assaults on staff, no murders, no suicides you would almost have to have a [guard] assigned to every single inmate or continually have eyes on those inmates.”
However, the state data shows Fresno County recorded far more prisoner deaths, and particularly violent deaths, than some larger California jails. For example, Orange County’s jail on average holds twice as many people as Fresno County’s, but it had just one prisoner-on-prisoner homicide the past seven years. Fresno County had four.
Don Specter, director of the Berkeley, California-based nonprofit Prison Law Office, whose litigation against the state’s prisons spurred the realignment effort, called conditions in most county jails “a mess.”
The problems are compounded because county jails were never meant to accommodate these different prisoners with yearslong sentences. County jails also lack effective oversight, especially in monitoring the handling of difficult prisoners. And many sheriffs spend minimal amounts on jail health care and safety.
The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office does not segregate people awaiting trial from convicted prisoners serving a jail sentence. When more dangerous or mentally ill prisoners strain the short-handed staff, every part of the jail deals with the consequences. As the Herrera, Brock and Erkins cases illustrate, this can have a ripple effect throughout the jail. Officers are sometimes slower to conduct rounds, to notice prisoners who are gravely sick, to watch fights develop in a gang pod or to isolate psychotic prisoners.
Experts say apathy among officials in many of California’s 56 counties with jails has fostered a crisis.
“The sheriffs have been very indifferent to jail conditions,” Specter said. “There’s been a complete lack of action.”
Mims said 2018’s record number of fatalities inside her jail was predictable. In more than two hours of interviews, she repeatedly characterized such deaths as an unfortunate consequence of jail life after realignment and expressed no remorse over her office’s failure to prevent them. At one point she asked reporters for basic details about the fatalities in her own jail.
She also said one of the most “painful” moments of her time in office was releasing prisoners during the economic downturn. “Being a peace officer,” Mims said, “you know, you want to keep people locked up.”
Though running a jail is complicated work, prisoner deaths should not be dismissed as inevitable, said Marin County Sheriff Robert Doyle, speaking on behalf of the California State Sheriffs’ Association.
“As soon as someone walks in, they’re our responsibility,” he said. Asked if it’s the sheriff’s job to prevent prisoner deaths and jail violence, Doyle responded, “Of course.”
The Prison-to-Jail Churn
Fresno County’s jail system has been teeming with prisoners for decades. In 1993, county officials packed 20 people into a cell intended for 12, with prisoners sprawled on mattresses between and beneath bunk beds. In one incident, a prisoner clogged his toilet with a sheet, causing other cells to overflow with waste when someone flushed.
“By the time we had breakfast, seventy-five people were eating with two inches of human waste on the floor,” one prisoner said in a sworn affidavit.
Months before the toilets backed up, a convicted murderer raped and killed a man booked on drug charges. Then-Sheriff Steve Magarian told The Fresno Bee, “The jail is full of dangerous inmates who kill with no notice.”
Lawyers representing Fresno County prisoners sued the sheriff’s office in February 1993, alleging cruel and unusual jail conditions that violated the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. By November, the county settled with prisoners and agreed in a consent decree to cap the jail population. When any part of the jail reaches full capacity, the sheriff’s office must release prisoners and limit new arrivals. The sheriff is prohibited from having people sleep on the floor.
Though unpopular at first, “the reality is it put some kind of sensibility of operation into the jail,” said Assistant Sheriff Tom Gattie, who oversees Fresno’s jail.
In negotiations, the prisoners’ lawyers agreed the sheriff’s office can house three people in a space designed for two. The sheriff is legally allowed to overcrowd the jail, but only to a point.
Then came back-to-back blows for Fresno County. The real estate market crash and recession dried up jail funding as tax revenues shriveled.
Mims was running for a second term as Fresno County sheriff in 2010. She won the top job four years earlier, advocating tough-on-crime policies and denouncing early prisoner releases. But facing severe budget shortfalls, Mims laid off several dozen correctional officers. She closed several floors of the jail because she didn’t have enough officers to watch prisoners. And the consent decree required Mims to set some of them free.
The prisoner population dropped from 2,100 to 1,400 in the first six months of 2010, according to the sheriff’s office jail census data. The sheriff’s office primarily released people charged with misdemeanors or serving sentences for low-level crimes.
While Fresno County struggled with jail crowding and staffing, the state faced increasing pressure on its three dozen prisons. In May 2011, California lost its decadeslong legal fight on prison overcrowding. In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court required the state to reduce its prisoner population by 46,000 inmates. Without that dramatic change, there was “a certain and unacceptable risk of continuing violations of the rights of sick and mentally ill prisoners, with the result that many more will die or needlessly suffer,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. “The Constitution does not permit this wrong.”
Instead of releasing prisoners early, the state stopped thousands of new arrivals from going to prison at all.
Democratic Governor Jerry Brown and state lawmakers reduced the number of convicts sent to the prisons. They bundled the first reforms in 2011 into Assembly Bill 109, referred to as realignment. The legislation rerouted people convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual and nonserious crimes to serve sentences in county jails.
Realignment and subsequent sentencing reforms brought relief to state prisons and new burdens for many local governments. To ease the load, counties received billions of state taxpayer dollars to pay for new jail facilities, treatment programs and staff.
Previously, judges could not sentence people to more than a year in county jails. In the reform era, jail sentences extended for years, meaning that sheriffs must provide long-term care for county jail prisoners who previously would have gone to prisons.
County jails are not equipped for such strains, said Matt Cate, the former state corrections secretary who helped oversee realignment. In retrospect, Cate said he believes convicts sentenced to five years or more of incarceration should serve that time in prison, not the local jails.
“In some places, the sheriff had no chance,” Cate said. “The place was already crowded, and the place was already old, and the mission was already complex, and the budget was already not very good.”
As some state prisoners’ sentences ended in 2012, and realignment blocked new intakes, the prison population dropped by 20,000 within months.
The opposite occurred in county jails. The number of prisoners increased by almost 10,000, to about 82,000.
The release of prisoners has stabilized, but violence has increased. Mims said this has been an unavoidable result of the reforms that now involve longer stays for challenging prisoners. “Realignment changed the whole game,” the sheriff said.
Arguably, conditions inside the Fresno County jail should be improving. In 2015, the sheriff’s office agreed to a second consent decree in another class-action lawsuit over jail conditions. The agreement requires the sheriff to hire 127 additional correctional officers to protect and provide services to prisoners.
Mims has expanded the jail’s force by roughly 100 officers, court records show, but adding staff has not gone smoothly. Throughout 2017, the sheriff’s office hired 40 new officers but lost 39. Many departures were retirements, replacing experienced officers with rookies.
The churn continued into January 2018.
When Brock, Herrera and Erkins entered the jail, the sheriff’s office was hemorrhaging correctional officers. In March 2018, 13% of the jail positions were vacant.
The deadline for hiring new officers is October, but Mims doubts the office will make the deadline.
“We’re never going to be always 100% compliant,” she said.
And the jail’s issues continue to fester. It had an average daily population of 3,136 prisoners in February 2019, 11% higher than the previous February. The number of people incarcerated has exceeded 3,000 for six of the past seven months, within a court-ordered population cap but more than any recent time. About 25% of the current prisoners would have previously gone to state prisons, jail records show.
Jail staffers feel overwhelmed at times, said Lt. Russell Duran, a jail officer for 17 years. Staff members talk about the demands of guarding such large populations. The gang members expand their influence in the jail while serving longer sentences, the maximum-security prisoners pose a greater threat, those with serious mental illness and those with chronic medical conditions suffer in a place built to temporarily seal them away.
“I’m not gonna lie,” Duran said, “it’s hard to manage.”
The Fresno County Jail is also holding all prisoners for much longer periods of time than before realignment. The average length of stay in 2011 was 16 days. That extended to 21 days the following year as prison reform began. It has grown nearly every year since, according to data from the California Board of State and Community Corrections. Prisoners stayed in Fresno County 35 days, on average, in 2018.
Even people awaiting trial have idled in jail far longer, with the average pretrial stay doubling from 12 days in 2011 to about 24 days last year.
Jail conditions rarely came up as Mims successfully campaigned for her fourth term last year. She hasn’t faced an opponent since her first race in 2006.
Among the memorabilia adorning Mims’ office is the hard hat she wore January 25, 2018, at a ceremonial groundbreaking for the department’s new $110 million jail. The facility will replace a dilapidated 1947 jail annex, where female prisoners are housed, that is dangerous and in disrepair. It will hold 200 fewer people, reflecting realignment’s goal of reform and downsizing.
But it is a temporary fix.
“We’re building it,” Mims said, “with expansion in mind.”
A Psychotic Cellmate
The 48-hour period in which Herrera, Brock and Erkins entered the Fresno County Jail illustrates the failures of county jails since the 2011 realignment. They were not sent to jail because of realignment. But their lives were at increased risk at the troubled facility, in part, because of it.
On January 16, 2018, police found Brock at his grandmother’s house and arrested him on a warrant issued in April 2017 for allegedly possessing child pornography on his computer.
Then 20 years old, Brock lived with his grandmother on the north end of town along the San Joaquin River. He had dropped out of high school and spent his days riding dirt bikes, playing video games and helping his father work at a radiator repair shop. His mother, Tabatha Rankin, said her son loved hiking and fishing but hadn’t figured out what to do with his life.
When Brock was arrested, his family couldn’t afford to post bail. Rankin visited him at the jail the next day. “He seemed to be OK, everything was OK,” she said. “And then the next day was a whole different story.”
Brock had been assigned a frightening cellmate three days after he was arrested. He sounded alarmed in a call to his mother. “He told me there was a guy in there and he was crazy and he needed his psych medicine,” Rankin recalled. She urged her son to report problems to staff.
The sheriff’s office knew of the cellmate’s mental issues.
The cellmate was incarcerated for six months, awaiting trial in a rape case, court records show, and a psychiatrist prescribed medicine for psychosis. The cellmate, then 26, refused to take it.
A judge ordered him moved to a locked state psychiatric hospital so he could be forcibly medicated. It was an urgent matter, the ruling states, because “if the defendant’s mental disorder is not treated with antipsychotic medications, it is probable that serious harm to the physical or mental health of the patient will result.”
He was still awaiting transfer a month later, when Brock was placed in his cell. Admission to a California state hospital often takes months, and in January 2018 the waitlist was more than 1,000 patients long. (Notably, Fresno County’s court sends more prisoners to state mental hospitals than almost every other large county in California, The Fresno Bee reported in 2013.)
Whether Brock reported his fears about his cellmate to jail staff is unclear. But on January 19, the cellmate, according to the Fresno County sheriff’s office, choked Brock until he’d squeezed off air to his brain.
Staff called the Fresno Fire Department and an emergency medical team arrived shortly before 9 p.m. Brock “had trauma to the neck and knuckles,” firefighters reported. Paramedics tried to reopen Brock’s airway and rushed him to the emergency room.
Rankin was unaware of the struggle to save her son. She repeatedly checked the online prisoner search tool that evening to see if Brock had been moved to a different, safer cell. No updates popped up, until she saw that her son had been taken to a hospital.
Rankin waited outside until the jail’s lobby opened. She told the front desk staff she “wasn’t going to leave until they told me something.”
A supervising officer assured her “that he was OK,” Rankin remembered. “It was just a little fight that they had gotten into and everything was fine.” Yes, Brock was hospitalized, but Rankin couldn’t visit him unless she first posted bail.
More than an hour later, an officer called to tell her that Brock might not survive. She rushed to his hospital room to find his wrists and ankles cuffed to the bed frame, dark bruises around his throat. He was comatose, but two officers stood guard to ensure he didn’t escape.
“They didn’t know how long he had been without oxygen,” Rankin said. He remained unconscious for two weeks, clinging to life.
When Brock awakened, he couldn’t walk. He had no short-term memory, his mother said, and seemed to have problems with basic mental functions.
Prosecutors dropped the charges against Brock, and Rankin has filed a wrongful injury lawsuit against the sheriff’s office, now scheduled to go to trial next year. Fresno County has denied all wrongdoing in the case.
Today, Brock’s future remains uncertain, his mother said. He still lives with his grandmother, and his family tries to safeguard him.
“There’s always someone there with him,” Rankin said. “He’s never there by himself.”
“No Reason Why that Boy Should’ve Died”
Andre Erkins got into trouble with the law for the first time on August 9, 2012. “While the victim was unloading groceries, Erkins took her purse from her shopping cart,” the arrest report said.
Fresno County prosecutors charged him with felony grand theft and simple assault, and he pleaded guilty in January 2013. A judge sentenced him to two years probation and 240 days in the Fresno County Jail.
When Erkins was released, he tried in his own way to get his life back on track.
He moved to Southern California to start over but failed to give his probation officer advance notice. Then he missed a court date. A judge issued a warrant for his arrest. Erkins knew he was in trouble, but his relationship with longtime friend Natalie Meza was going well.
They had their first child, Joseph, in 2014, and Christiana was born in spring 2016. Erkins stayed home with the kids when Meza worked. She moved to the Sacramento metro area in 2016 to train as a sign-language interpreter, and he joined her for their daughter’s first birthday.
Erkins rarely talked with Meza about his probation violation. But the rest of his family urged him to resolve it.
On January 18, 2018, Erkins rolled through an intersection without stopping while driving Meza to work, with his children in the backseat. An officer pulled him over and ran his name.
Erkins knew he was caught. He told his partner, “I’m going to go.... It might as well be now than later so I can get it done with.”
The officer put Erkins in the police car and told Meza to say goodbye. “I took that opportunity to go and tell him that I love him, that everything’s going to be right,” she said.
A judge on February 5 ordered that he spend four weeks in jail to resolve the theft charge.
But on February 17, Erkins “complained of not feeling well,” according to his autopsy report. He was “sent to the infirmary” and told staff he vomited seven times. Erkins was “interacting with infirmary staff when he collapsed,” after having “seizure like activity,” according to the report.
Jail staff began CPR, and an ambulance whisked him to a hospital five blocks away. He was pronounced dead at 8:37 p.m.
Erkins died a “natural” death caused by atherosclerotic heart disease, ruled the county coroner, who is part of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office. His heart was slightly enlarged, and some of his arteries were 70% blocked. Investigators said that during his booking, he reported having high blood pressure but wasn’t taking medication.
That is the official version of events. But a cellmate said that doesn’t tell the full story of Erkins’ final hours.
Erkins’ bunkmate remembers trying to get help for him while he suffered for more than 10 hours, apparently unnoticed by correctional officers during hourly checks. Erkins complained of a headache, then vomited and poured sweat, his bunkmate said in a phone interview. (The bunkmate, now serving time in a state prison, requested his name not be used out of fear for his safety.)
“He did not look healthy at all. Pale.... He just looked drained,” Erkins’ bunkmate said.
Erkins’ speech slurred that evening as they sat at a dayroom table. His lips were turning blue, but he told his bunkmate he had no previous medical problems. “This guy needs medical attention ASAP,” the bunkmate remembered telling an officer. “He’s gonna die!”
Erkins was taken to medical staff some 30 minutes after the prisoners alerted the correctional officer, according to Erkins’ bunkmate. Officers locked down the jail five minutes later. Firefighters and emergency medical technicians arrived, loaded Erkins onto a stretcher and wheeled him away.
The bunkmate told his mother, Jennifer Sanders, what he saw. Bothered by the death of an otherwise healthy man in jail on a probation violation, Sanders wrote to officials accusing them of neglect and sent a copy to Erkins’ mom. She signed her letter “a concerned mother and citizen.”
“There was no reason why that boy should’ve died,” she said in a telephone interview.
The morning after Erkins died, an investigator called Erkins’ brother, Deijon, to ask questions about the family’s background and medical history. Deijon Erkins did not know what had happened to Ari, the family nickname for his brother.
“Is he alive?” Deijon Erkins demanded. “He just hesitated, and he’s like, ‘I’m sorry to inform you ....’”
Deijon Erkins called Meza, and she scolded him for interrupting her at the McDonald’s where she worked. “What was so important it couldn’t wait?” she wondered.
Ari died, Deijon told her.
Meza said she sobbed in the bathroom stall.
Erkins’ family tried to get lawyers to pressure the sheriff’s office for answers, but they eventually gave up, tangled in the county bureaucracy.
Erkins’ mother, Chrisie Collins, wrote to the court complaining that she was getting the “runaround.” A year later, when contacted about the letter in Erkins’ court file, she said, “Finally, somebody’s paying attention.”
The family created pendants to hold Erkins’ ashes. For Collins, a silver music note filled with his remains travels with her in the car. Meza misses her partner and the better life they were trying to build.
Four-year-old Joseph dealt with the loss of his father through grief counseling, Meza said. Christiana, who recently turned 3, is only beginning to ask questions.
An Unsolved Case
On January 17, 2018, Lorenzo Herrera called his parents, Carlos and Anna, to say he was OK but was under arrest.
He and two other young men were accused of smashing into a home southeast of Fresno and fleeing in a pickup. Herrera allegedly pointed a gun at an officer before surrendering.
Herrera was working as a janitor at the local high school, and as far as his parents knew, the only thing he had ever stolen was a family barbeque smoker he used to party with friends and never returned, his father said. Lorenzo Herrera had no previous criminal history, according to court records.
In a jail intake photo, Herrera wore black clothes, his hat turned backward. He held a dry-erase board proclaiming to be a “Northerner” from Reedley, a subsect of the Norteños street gang. He said his moniker was “Rampage.”
His father saw the image as a survival tactic. Self-identifying as a gang member is part of living in the Central Valley and being Hispanic, he said. “My son wasn’t no gang member,” Carlos Herrera said in an interview.
At booking, Herrera was assigned a cell in a Norteños gang pod. Correctional officers observe prisoners in six different pods from a glass-encircled observation deck. The feeling is different on the floor. Concrete walls separate the six pods, and some pods contain up to 72 prisoners. Some are serving yearslong sentences and others recently arrived and are awaiting their day in court.
Four correctional officers are expected to maintain order among some 200 prisoners on the floor. Correctional officers, who do not carry firearms, are required by the state to perform hourly checks. If trouble erupts, they must craft a plan to take back control.
On February 2, two weeks after Herrera arrived, a melee in the gang pod demanded action.
Three correctional officers appear to have been working the crowded sixth floor, and two officers in the security station noticed a group of men walking toward a prisoner, according to a sheriff’s office incident report. They saw prisoners beating a man under the stairwell.
An officer called for help. A pepper-ball launcher was rushed from the security station. An officer opened the door hatch, pulled a launcher from his leg holster and “instructed all inmates to stop fighting and to get down on the ground,” according to incident reports. That was met with “negative results.”
The officer fired six pepper-ball rounds toward the prisoners, forcing them to drop to the floor. At least 18 correctional officers and staff from across the complex flooded into the pod.
An unconscious prisoner was whisked to the hospital, and the pod was put on lockdown. The man assaulted “refused to press charges,” jail staff wrote.
In the 66 days Herrera was in Fresno County’s custody, four people were so seriously injured in fights they required multiple-day hospital admissions, according to county records. That’s more than in all the preceding year.
While inside, Herrera spoke to his parents but never mentioned the violence. In one visit, he apologized to his mother for missing Valentine’s Day. “Mom, I’m really sorry. I don’t want to feel like you’re afraid for me. I’m OK. Don’t worry about me,” she said he told her.
About a month after that visit, on March 24, 2018, a correctional officer doing cell checks found Herrera dead on a cell bunk bed. A “man down” call was issued and the staff started CPR. He was pronounced dead about 25 minutes later.
An autopsy determined Herrera had been choked to death, the cause of death “ligature strangulation.”
The phone at Carlos and Anna Herrera’s home rang about 7:45 p.m., and they were asked to come to the jail. During the drive toward downtown Fresno, they wondered if their son would be released.
Instead, they were led into a meeting room and offered a box of tissues.
Lorenzo was dead. And though his killer was in custody, the jail officers were not sure who it was, according to court filings.
Prisoners have some control over day-to-day life inside the pod. They’re not supposed to enter another person’s cell, but officers do not keep tabs on who’s coming and going. One officer described it as the “honor system.” Cameras record common areas and can see who enters and exits specific cells, which are not video monitored.
Herrera’s parents have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the sheriff’s office, and a jury trial is scheduled for 2021. The county denies all wrongdoing.
The investigation into Herrera’s death remains open, and no one has been charged. Investigators have interviewed every prisoner in the pod at the time of his death, along with every officer on duty.
Detectives were awaiting results from a DNA test of some evidence from the scene, according to a recent court filing.
The prolonged homicide investigation is but one of Mims’ challenges in managing the chaotic Fresno jail. Since the 2015 consent decree, lawyers and prison-reform experts have called for more jail staffing. In meetings with the sheriff’s staff, they examine progress in correcting a jail that has become known for its record of violence and death.
Mims does not attend those meetings and said she instead sends jail administrators to represent her office.
Specter, with the Prison Law Office, said a sheriff’s absence sends a clear message. “One indication of how much they care is whether they show up,” he said.
For her part, Mims has established herself as a voice on national immigration policy. She traveled with President Donald Trump to the U.S.-Mexico border in April 2019 to advocate tougher federal enforcement.
Meanwhile, the county jail is grappling again with setbacks. Within the past two months, three dozen correctional officers have retired or quit their posts.
The jail remains filled to capacity.
Part II: There Has Been an Explosion of Homicides in California’s County Jails. Here’s Why.
Some California county jails saw their rate of prisoner-on-prisoner homicides triple or quadruple, and statewide the number rose 46% after 2011 prison reforms shifted responsibility from state prisons to county lockups. As sheriffs and jail staffs strain, some prisoner crimes go undetected for hours.
Since 2011, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to overhaul its overcrowded prisons, prisoner-on-prisoner homicides have risen 46% in county jails statewide compared with the seven years before, a McClatchy and ProPublica analysis of California Department of Justice data and autopsy records shows.
Killings tripled and even quadrupled in several counties.
The increase in violent deaths in jails began soon after California officials approved sweeping reforms called “realignment” in response to the court ruling. The result has meant the conditions in many jails now mirror those in the once-overcrowded prisons, with inmates killing each other at an increasing rate.
Prisoners have stabbed, bludgeoned or strangled their cellmates, moved bodies and wiped away blood before guards noticed, autopsy reports show. Staff at the jails have missed several of the crimes entirely, only finding the bodies hours later.
The state holds more than 70,000 prisoners spread across 56 counties with jails. Many prisoners now are serving multiyear sentences in jails originally designed to hold people no longer than a year. An increasing number of jail prisoners suffer from serious mental illness or chronic medical conditions that those facilities have been unprepared to handle.
While prisoner-on-prisoner homicides are up significantly in jails overall, Los Angeles County, home to more than 10 million people, including 16,000 in its jails, has been an exception. That follows a federal court order placing the nation’s largest jail system under an outside monitor in 2014 to overhaul operations after guards were caught allowing fights among prisoners and other abuses. Los Angeles County jails haven’t had a prisoner homicide in more than three years.
The rest of California saw its prisoner homicide count soar by 150%, from 12 killings in the seven years before realignment to at least 30 in the seven years after.
The surge in killings in county jails is particularly significant because the population there is vastly different than in prisons. The majority of people in jails statewide are accused of crimes, innocent under the law, whereas prisons only hold those who have been convicted of felonies. Jails mix both populations, and the result has been deadly for some.
Three-quarters of those killed in jails since 2011 were awaiting trial, according to state data. Some of the victims were hours away from being released.
Diverting people from overcrowded state prisons to county jails brought organized criminal activity and other new burdens to local sheriffs, said Jonathan Caudill, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Colorado who studies realignment and incarceration in California. The increase in homicides suggests jail officials lack the resources to supervise, provide services and protect the jail population, he said.
“You have the importation of prison politics into the county jail in concert with people being there longer and having to handle their problems there,” Caudill said. “It’s like fire and gasoline.”
Kill, Clean, Report
Increased deadly violence soon followed in every major California region, from the Bay Area to the Central Valley and the Southern California coastline.
In the seven years before realignment, only one jail prisoner was killed in Riverside County, east of Los Angeles. But five have died in homicides in the seven years since. In San Diego County, homicides jumped from two to five in that same period.
Legislation passed to enact realignment reclassified the way the state looked at about 500 crimes to effectively eliminate the possibility of prison time. The new rules applied to anyone convicted of a crime after October 1, 2011, and changed the statutes throughout California law, from the penal to the motor vehicle codes.
Realignment didn’t release people from prison early out a back door – it closed one of the front doors and made it more difficult to end up there at all.
Critics predicted the changes would inevitably lead to a spike in violent street crime statewide. But that has not happened. Researchers have found the prison realignment effort since 2011 has had little to no effect on public safety.
“Statewide violent and property crime rates are roughly where they were when California began implementing these reforms,” a Public Policy Institute of California report stated this year.
Inside California’s jails, the same has not been true. Sentenced prisoners make up a greater share of the jail population statewide, and there are thousands more people held on felonies than in the years before realignment, data from the Board of State and Community Corrections shows.
The state has tried to improve conditions in its sprawling network of state prisons. But county jails – designed to hold people for weeks, not years – have long mixed low-level prisoners with violent defendants in cells, including those charged with murder. But California’s in-custody death data and autopsy records indicate that risky practice has at least contributed to more deadly results in the years since realignment.
On May 8, 2013, Julio Negrete, Jr. was booked into a Riverside County jail on suspicion of drug possession. Officials assigned him a cellmate accused of murder. The next day, guards went to escort Negrete, 35, to a bond meeting but couldn’t find him. They searched the cell from top to bottom, found bloody socks and then came upon his strangled body under the lower bunk hidden by two small cardboard boxes, coroner and court records state. Video footage showed the attack happened roughly 10 hours earlier.
In a written statement, the sheriff’s department said it is “always troubled” by prisoner violence and investigates every assault in Riverside County jails. The agency said the five homicides since 2011 are not the result of its own failings. “When looking back at the totality as a whole, the assaults were discovered to be isolated from one another and acts of opportunity rather than a lapse of policy or procedure,” the department said. “All staff performed professionally and utilized their training to provide safety and security to the facility.”
Ross Mirkarimi, a former San Francisco County sheriff who now reviews prisoner deaths, said of county jails: “The system obviously has fundamental blind spots. Those who are hellbent on committing murder know how to defeat those blind spots.”
Mirkarimi said local sheriffs haven’t reacted with enough alarm to deaths in jail custody. He said that if dying in a cell is “the most vivid feature” of a jail’s shortcoming, a doubling of prisoner-on-prisoner killings should sound a blaring siren.
When dangerous or mentally ill prisoners strain a short-handed staff, every part of a jail suffers the consequences. Officers are sometimes slower to conduct rounds, to see fights develop in a housing area for dozens of gang members or to notice other signs of trouble. They often arrive too late to save lives.
Boredom and frustration alone can create tension among cellmates, said Michael Bien, a lawyer representing prisoners in lawsuits against California prisons and several county jails. “We know that incarcerating someone in a place where you don’t have anything to do is likely to lead to violence, mental illness, stress, suicide, all sorts of things.”
On December 14, 2014, a deputy at the Sacramento County Jail was conducting overnight rounds in a pod for sick prisoners where Edward Larson was housed. Larson, 54, was a mentally ill homeless man jailed for failing to register as a sex offender.
Jail staff assigned him a new cellmate after another prisoner complained of Larson’s lewd comments and poor hygiene. His behavior also bothered his new cellmate, Ernest Salmons, who alerted a deputy at 3:10 a.m. that something was wrong. Larson was lying on his back, eyes closed and a blanket pulled up to his neck.
The deputy instructed Salmons, who was in jail on suspicion of stealing a vehicle, to nudge Larson, according to the district attorney’s death-in-custody review, so Salmons jostled Larson’s mattress. He was unresponsive, his skin cool to the touch, and firefighters pronounced him dead minutes later. His autopsy report shows he was beaten to death sometime after the previous night’s “stand-up count,” when prisoners must stand so guards can take attendance. After that, staff only peer through cell windows for hourly checks.
Salmons first denied fighting Larson. But investigators noticed small areas of smeared blood on the wall of the cell, which had two beds. They found a bloodied T-shirt in the trash can and remnants of pooled blood on the floor. Larson’s head was bandaged, although he had never asked for a bandage. Salmons, however, received several of them.
“It appears,” investigators wrote, “someone had tried to clean up blood from the cell.”
Salmons was convicted of the killing and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office initially agreed to an interview about the safety of its jail. Then it rescinded the offer, saying instead it would only provide written answers to questions. Then it changed course again, saying the “topics” were the subject of “ongoing litigation” and it would answer no questions.
“I can tell you that the Sheriff’s Office is aware of the concerns regarding these topics,” Sgt. Tess Deterding, a spokeswoman, wrote in a statement.
“Agitated and Shirtless”
It’s not clear why Lyle Woodward was even in the San Diego Central Jail in early December 2016. Police had arrested him for alleged drug possession weeks earlier, though county officials later claimed in a court filing that he was jailed on a parole violation. Woodward had a history of mental illness and drug cases.
Regardless, on December 3, correctional officers responded to a “man-down” alert and found Woodward unresponsive, sprawled facedown on the cell floor with blood pooling around his head, according to medical examiner records. Jail staff described one of Woodward’s cellmates as “agitated and shirtless.”
Cellmate Clinton Thinn, a New Zealander charged with armed bank robbery, told officers he’d fought with Woodward several minutes earlier. However, bruises on Woodward’s neck suggested something had been tied around his throat to choke off air. In the cell toilet, officers found a jail-issued blue shirt, torn into strips and knotted together. “It is unclear if the suspect attempted to flush the shirt portion,” the autopsy report stated.
Medics rushed Woodward to a nearby emergency room, where doctors and nurses resuscitated the 30-year-old. But his brain was gravely injured, and he began having seizures. Woodward’s condition worsened; his parents told the hospital to stop life support, and he died a week after the attack.
Last year, a jury convicted Thinn of murdering Woodward and sentenced him to 25 years in prison. Woodward’s parents have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the sheriff’s department, alleging that jail staff failed to protect their son from a dangerous prisoner and were slow to provide medical care. The sheriff has denied the allegations.
In written answers to questions from McClatchy and ProPublica, the sheriff’s department said the number of high-risk prisoners inside San Diego County’s jail increased after realignment. It responded by forming a jail investigations unit.
“They work closely with facility staff members to develop, share and act upon information which could lead to violence and prevent it when possible,” Capt. Alan Kneeshaw wrote. “When assaults occur, they are documented and investigated.”
In Los Angeles County, a federal monitor and members of the public look into jail violence – not just the sheriff’s department. That independent scrutiny exists in only a couple of other California jurisdictions. And jail staff in Los Angeles didn’t volunteer for it.
Home to a quarter of the state’s residents, Los Angeles County once had as many prisoner killings as the other 55 county jails combined. In 2011, as state officials negotiated prison realignment, civil lawsuits and news reports exposed that guards at Los Angeles’ Men’s Central Jail intentionally allowed prisoners to assault each other.
County officials instituted an array of measures to protect people in the cells, including a civilian oversight board. The federal courts appointed an independent jail monitor.
Richard Drooyan, an attorney and the court-appointed monitor for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, said every jail fight is reviewed to ensure staff members followed safety protocols and intervened quickly. Gang members and other high-risk prisoners are escorted by guards when they leave their cells to prevent violence.
In other county jails, court and autopsy records show prisoners accused of serious violent crimes or suffering psychosis are sometimes housed with people facing minor charges. “That’s not the way they run the jails down here,” Drooyan said of Los Angeles County. The nation’s largest jail system now segregates and tightly controls where the high-risk prisoners go and what they do, he said.
The fixes appear to have reduced violence overall and homicides in particular. State in-custody death data shows Los Angeles County had 12 prisoner homicides from 2005 to 2011, compared with just five from 2012 to 2018.
A prisoner has not been killed by another person in custody in more than three years.
Today, officers and administrators in the Los Angeles County jails “understand their obligations to protect the inmates and they take those obligations pretty seriously,” Drooyan said. “And I think that it’s reflected in the statistics.”
Ryan Gabrielson is a reporter for ProPublica covering the U.S. justice system, and ProPublica data reporter Lylla Younes contributed to the first article. Both of these articles were produced in partnership with The Sacramento Bee, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
These two articles are part of an ongoing investigation into the crisis in California’s jails. ProPublica and The Sacramento Bee are spending 2019 examining overcrowding, resources and prisoner treatment in county jails across California. Get in touch with the reporting team by emailing CaliforniaJails@propublica.org or calling/texting 347-244-2134.
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