A dying shame: State leaders must fix, not ignore, prison reform’s deadly outcome

OverCorrection: Crisis in California Jails

In 2011, California was ordered to reduce its prison population. Since then, California's Central Valley inmate murders have tripled and suicides have risen 23%. Our investigation, OverCorrection: Crisis in California jails, publishes April 23.
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In 2011, California was ordered to reduce its prison population. Since then, California's Central Valley inmate murders have tripled and suicides have risen 23%. Our investigation, OverCorrection: Crisis in California jails, publishes April 23.

When Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a death penalty moratorium in March, he should have focused it on Fresno County’s Main Jail instead of San Quentin’s death row.

The State of California hasn’t executed a death row inmate since 2006. But 47 people entered Fresno’s jail alive and exited dead in the seven years since California’s adopted a policy known as “public safety realignment.”

The policy shifted responsibility for housing certain felons from state prisons to county jails. It also moved billions of dollars in funding from state to local coffers. Yet it did not require sheriffs to use the money to run safe jails.

Now, a short stint in some Central Valley jails can easily become a death sentence. According to an investigation by McClatchy and ProPublica, “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.”

This wasn’t what state lawmakers had in mind when they enacted the sweeping reform in 2011. Realignment began as a necessary – and seemingly progressive – change to reduce California’s prison population. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature adopted the policy after the U.S. Supreme Court declared that extreme overcrowding in California’s prisons violated the Constitution.

Gov. Jerry Brown touted the reform as part of the “doctrine of subsidiarity.” The theory, rooted in Catholic teachings, asserts that most decisions are best made at a local level. “Subsidiarity is the idea that a central authority should only perform those tasks which cannot be performed at a more immediate or local level,” said Brown during his 2013 State of the State speech.

While local control may succeed in certain contexts, it has clearly failed in some Central Valley jails. Horrific situations in jails like Fresno’s resemble human rights violations more than public corrections in an era of criminal justice reform.

In the wake of realignment, “less affluent counties in California’s Central Valley watched inmate homicides triple.”

Local control, as implemented by Fresno Sheriff Margaret Mims, means overcrowded jail pods with few guards to keep watch. Fresno’s neglectfully understaffed jail produces misery, suffering and death. The number of people who died in Fresno County’s custody doubled in the years since realignment. Last year was the deadliest in decades.

Lorenzo Herrera was only 19 when officers found him strangled to death in his cell on the 66th day of his stay in Fresno’s jail. He was awaiting trial, meaning he hadn’t even been convicted of a crime. His murder remains unsolved.

Ernest Brock, 20, was strangled until nearly dead by a cellmate whom jail staff knew as psychotic and dangerous. After emerging from a coma, Brock couldn’t even remember how to walk. Prosecutors dropped all charges against him.

Andre Erkins, 30, died a “natural” death in Fresno jail, felled by an undiagnosed heart ailment while awaiting a hearing.

“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,” according to McClatchy and ProPublica.

All three men were booked into the jail during a two day period in January 2018.

“Three bookings within 48 hours. Three young men jailed for different reasons,” wrote reporters Jason Pohl and Ryan Gabrielson. “Three people who walked into the overcrowded Fresno County Jail and left on gurneys, dead or barely alive.”

Sheriff Mims – who hasn’t faced an opponent since 2006 – seems quite relaxed about the deadly conditions in her jail.

“We’re never going to be always 100 percent compliant,” she said, when asked about her failure to meet the staffing levels mandated by a consent decree. She delegates critical meetings on the lack of jail staff to her underlings.

“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,” wrote Pohl and Gabrielson.

It’s easy to blame Mims, a Republican who would rather gallivant with President Trump at anti-immigrant photo ops than run a safe jail. But it was Democrats in Sacramento who handed her more power and responsibility than she cares to manage competently.

“The sheriffs have been very indifferent to jail conditions,” said Don Specter of nonprofit Prison Law Office. “There’s been a complete lack of action.”

Will Democratic leaders in the Capitol, many of whom were here when realignment began, also prove indifferent to California’s deadly jails? Where is Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who has power over state sheriffs but remains oddly absent whenever problems arise?

Gov. Newsom gained international recognition for his bold stance against the death penalty. But in his state, a stay in county jail can equal a death sentence.

If the governor wants to solve a humanitarian crisis, he doesn’t need a plane ticket to El Salvador. He can find one festering in the heart of Fresno.

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