Capitol Alert AM Newsletter

What’s going on in California jails? Our investigation into prison reform’s unintended consequences

Hey, everyone!

I’m Jason Pohl, a reporter at The Sacramento Bee working in partnership with ProPublica’s Ryan Gabrielson on a yearlong project investigating how 2011’s public safety realignment AB 109 — is affecting county jails. Among other things, we’re looking at what sheriffs are doing with the increased responsibility and funding, and we’re poring through documents that can tell us about successes, shortcomings and failures in jail decision-making.

Hannah Wiley gave me the keys to the newsletter to talk about what we’ve found, what you might’ve missed over summer break, and what we’re up to next. So here we go!


Before realignment, there were twice as many people in California’s state prisons than the buildings were designed to hold. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the overcrowding violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment and ordered the state to trim its prison population by more than 40,000 inmates.

So began California’s radical incarceration transformation that shifted some responsibility for some offenders away from state prisons and on to county jails. The state handed the county sheriffs a huge problem and set aside billions of dollars to help them fix it.

Some sheriffs viewed the changes as a burden, not an opportunity. Some jail officials aren’t separating violent or mentally ill patients from the general population. Their jails lack adequate health care. And as we’ve found, deaths are up. In some places, they’re way up.

(For more information on AB109 and the effort to downsize the state’s prisons, check out this primer we published.)


Our latest story revealed state officials have awarded $2.1 billion for 65 jail construction projects since realignment began eight years ago. Only 11 have opened.

Another 11 gave up funds after winning them, hindered by a tangle of state processes, shifting political priorities and too little local tax revenue to operate the jails after they’re built. Most of the rest of the projects are several years behind schedule, records show.

Jail improvement failures have proved deadly in places like Merced County.

The half-century-old Main Jail has been deemed “dysfunctional” and “deplorable” for more than a decade, and narrow hallways make it so staff can’t see into the cells unless they’re standing right in front of the rusting bars.

Young men, like Fabian Cardoza, have died out of sight. We found that staff didn’t see a pair of inmates strangle the 20-year-old and failed to notice his body for more than 24 hours.

No one told his widow it took a day to find his body.

Merced County won a $40 million award from the state to upgrade a separate facility. The Main Jail remains open and dangerous.


Ryan and I reported in June how inmate-on-inmate homicides have risen dramatically in county jails since realignment.

While inmate-on-inmate 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 inmates and other abuses. Los Angeles County jails haven’t had an inmate homicide in more than three years.

The rest of California saw its inmate homicide count soar by 150%, from 12 killings in the seven years before realignment to at least 30 in the seven years after.


We focused on Fresno County in our first installment of the year. Inmate deaths have increased more sharply there than any other county jail. Eleven people died in custody last year, making it the deadliest year in the jail in at least two decades.

Arguably, conditions inside the Fresno County jail should be improving. Sheriff Margaret Mims agreed to hire 127 additional correctional officers to settle a lawsuit four years ago. So far, Mims has expanded the jail’s force by roughly 100 officers.

It hasn’t gone smoothly. Throughout 2017, the sheriff’s office hired 40 new officers but lost 39. Many departures were retirements, replacing experienced officers with rookies.

Mims said 2018’s record number of fatalities inside her jail was predictable, and she repeatedly characterized such deaths as an unfortunate consequence of jail life after realignment.

Lawyers, including Don Specter of the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office, say that attitude is pervasive across the state. California is home to 56 counties with jails, and almost all of them are run by sheriffs who have little oversight beyond the next election.

Last month, the Sacramento County Grand Jury endorsed calls for more oversight of the sheriff’s office in a report that recommended creating a separate commission to increase accountability of the law enforcement agency.

The grand jury’s recommendation for a new commission coincides with efforts by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, to create oversight boards equipped with subpoena and investigative powers. McCarty’s Assembly Bill 1185 — which earned some Republican support — narrowly passed the Assembly in June.

The bill, like many law enforcement-related bills this year, has more often been discussed in relation to use-of-force and deputy or sheriff wrongdoing. But McCarty in a statement to The Bee last month said it directly relates to the jails under sheriff’s control.

“The deteriorating conditions of county jails throughout the state demonstrate the need for more transparency, especially considering that county jails are occupying more than 70,000 people,” he said.

AB 1185 now awaits a vote in the Senate.

Summer may be winding down, but we’re nowhere near done shining light on where problems exist and solutions are needed to improve California’s jails post-realignment. If you’ve got an idea, let’s get in touch! And if you’d like to keep up with the project, sign up here to get alerts when new stories publish.

Thanks for reading and for following along.

Until next time, cheers!

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Jason Pohl reports on criminal justice for The Sacramento Bee, in partnership with ProPublica’s 2019 Local Reporting Network. His current work is examining strains in California county jails after statewide changes involving incarceration. He has reported since 2011 on public safety, mental health and disasters for newspapers in Colorado and Arizona.