More in­mates killing in­mates in Cal­i­for­nia

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY JA­SON POHL AND RYAN GABRIELSON The Sacra­mento Bee and Pro Publica

Deadly vi­o­lence surged in county jails across Cal­i­for­nia since the state be­gan send­ing thou­sands of in­mates to local lock­ups in­stead of pris­ons, the re­sult of a dra­matic crim­i­nal jus­tice trans­for­ma­tion that left many sher­iffs ill-equipped to han­dle a new and dan­ger­ous pop­u­la­tion.

Since 2011, when the U.S. Supreme Court or­dered Cal­i­for­nia to over­haul its over­crowded pris­ons, in­mate-on-in­mate homi­cides have risen 46 per­cent 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.

In­mates have stabbed, blud­geoned or stran­gled their cell­mates, moved bod­ies and wiped away blood be­fore guards no­ticed, au­topsy re--

ports 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 in­mates spread across 56 coun­ties with jails. Many in­mates now are serv­ing mul­ti­year sen­tences in jails orig­i­nally de­signed to hold peo­ple no longer than a year. An in­creas­ing num­ber of jail in­mates suf­fer from se­ri­ous men­tal ill­ness or chronic med­i­cal con­di­tions that those fa­cil­i­ties have been un­pre­pared to han­dle.

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 per­cent, 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.


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 in­mate 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 Oct. 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 in­mates 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 in­mates 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 come 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 in­mate vi­o­lence and in­ves­ti­gates every as­sault in River­side County jails. The depart­ment 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 in­mate 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 in­mate-on­in­mate killings should sound a blar­ing siren.

When dan­ger­ous or men­tally ill in­mates 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 in­mates 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 Dec. 14, 2014, a deputy sher­iff 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 in­mate 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 in­mates 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.


Why Lyle Wood­ward was in the San Diego Cen­tral Jail in early De­cem­ber 2016 is un­clear. 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 Dec. 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 in­mate and was 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 in­mates 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 in­mate 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 in­mates 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.

In other county jails, court and au­topsy records show in­mates ac­cused of se­ri­ous vi­o­lent crimes or suf­fer­ing psy­chosis are some­times housed with peo­ple fac­ing mi­nor charges.

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