California Tried to Fix Its Prisons. Now Its County Jails Are More Deadly.

By Ryan Gabrielson and Jason Pohl




This story was originally co-published by the Sacramento Bee and ProPublica.

On the night of Jan. 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 inmate 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 inmate 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 inmate 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 inmates working their way through a clogged criminal justice system.

Eleven inmates 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 inmates incarcerated for longer sentences than ever before. As a result, inmates are dying in markedly higher numbers.

No other jail in California has seen a sharper increase in inmate deaths than the Fresno County Jail, whose three buildings house more than 3,000 inmates, mostly in the concrete cube known as the Main Jail in downtown Fresno. In the seven years before the 2011 realignment, 23 inmates 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 inmate killed another in the seven years before realignment. Since then, four have died at the hands of other inmates.

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 inmate 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 inmate 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, an inmate 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 inmate 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 inmate-on-inmate 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 inmates with yearslong sentences. County jails also lack effective oversight, especially in monitoring the handling of difficult inmates. 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 inmates serving a jail sentence. When more dangerous or mentally ill inmates 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 inmates who are gravely sick, to watch fights develop in a gang pod or to isolate psychotic inmates.

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.”

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.”

Read Full Article Here:

Bethany CrooksComment