‘NO REA­SON THAT BOY SHOULD’VE DIED’

In­mate deaths at Cal­i­for­nia county jails in­creased after the US Supreme Court or­dered re­forms be­cause of over­crowd­ing, an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by McClatchy and ProPublica found. In Fresno County, fa­tal­i­ties dou­bled.

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY JASON POHL AND RYAN GABRIELSON McClatchy 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.”

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 in­mates 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, in­mate 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 in­mate 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 in­mates sprawled on mat­tresses be­tween and be­neath bunk beds. In one in­ci­dent, an in­mate 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 in­mate said in a sworn af­fi­davit.

Months be­fore the toi­lets backed up, a con­victed mur­derer raped and killed a man booked on drug charges. ThenSher­iff Steve Ma­gar­ian told The Fresno Bee, “The jail is full of dan­ger­ous in­mates who kill with no no­tice.”

Lawyers rep­re­sent­ing Fresno County in­mates 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 in­mates 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 in­mates 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 in­mates’ 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 in­mate 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 in­mates. And the con­sent de­cree re­quired Mims to set some of them free.

The in­mate 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 Gov. 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 in­mates 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 in­mates 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 in­mates. “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 clas­s­ac­tion lawsuit over jail con­di­tions. The agree­ment requires the sher­iff to hire 127 additional cor­rec­tional of­fi­cers to pro­tect and pro­vide ser­vices to in­mates.

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 per­cent 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 per­cent com­pli­ant,” she said.

And the jail’s is­sues con­tinue to fester. It had an aver­age daily pop­u­la­tion of 3,136 in­mates in Fe­bru­ary, 11 per­cent 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 per­cent of the cur­rent in­mates 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 in­mates 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 in­mates 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. In­mates stayed in Fresno County 35 days, on aver­age, in 2018.

Even peo­ple await­ing trial have idled in jail far longer, with the aver­age pre-trial 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 Jan. 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 in­mates 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 Jan. 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 in­mates 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 Jan. 19, the cell­mate ac­cord­ing to the Fresno County sher­iff’s of­fice choked his cell­mate un­til he’d squeezed off air to Brock’s 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 in­mate 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 short­term 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.”

IN­MATES 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.’

‘NO REA­SON WHY THAT BOY SHOULD’VE DIED’

An­dre Erkins got into trou­ble with the law for the first time on Aug. 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 Jan. 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 Feb. 5 or­dered that he spend four weeks in jail to re­solve the theft charge.

But on Feb. 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 per­cent 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 there is an­other.

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 in­mates 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 Jan. 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 in­mates 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 in­mates. 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 in­mates 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 Feb. 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 an in­mate, ac­cord­ing to a sher­iff’s of­fice in­ci­dent report. They saw in­mates 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 pep­per­ball rounds to­ward the in­mates, forc­ing them to drop to the floor. At least 18 cor­rec­tional of­fi­cers and staff from across the com­plex flooded into the pod.

An un­con­scious in­mate 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 mul­ti­ple­day 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.

In­mates 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 in­mate 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 ear­lier this month 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.

GREG BETZA Spe­cial to ProPublica

AU­TUMN PAYNE [email protected]

Natalie Meza talks with her son, Joseph, 5, in their Elk Grove home on March 20. Meza’s life part­ner, and fa­ther of the kids, died in Fresno County Jail while serv­ing a two-month sen­tence for vi­o­lat­ing pa­role. The cause of death was listed as a heart at­tack, but the 30-year-old had no known med­i­cal con­di­tions. His cell­mates said that he was throw­ing up and in dis­tress for three hours, while they screamed for help.

RE­NEE C. BYER [email protected]

Chrisie Collins sits next to a folded blan­ket with a picture of her son An­dre Erkins on March 11 in Elk Grove. Erkins, 30, was ar­rested Jan. 18, 2018, on a bench war­rant for a five-year-old pro­ba­tion vi­o­la­tion and miss­ing a court date. Erkins was sub­se­quently sen­tenced to four weeks in the Fresno County Jail, where he died in cus­tody.

JUAN ES­PARZA LOERA Vida en el Valle file

Car­los and Anna Her­rera hold up a photo of their son, Lorenzo, who was dis­cov­ered stran­gled in his Fresno County Jail cell in March 2018. They have filed a fed­eral lawsuit against the county say­ing it failed to abide by a court order to main­tain ad­e­quate jail staffing.

JOHN WALKER [email protected]­nobee.com

Fresno County Sher­iff Mar­garet Mims says that county jails hold many dan­ger­ous peo­ple, and that aw­ful events are al­most in­evitable.

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