Merced deputies took 24 hours to find body in jail; problems still aren’t fixed
Last June, Fabian Cardoza headed to the shower in the dilapidated Merced County Main Jail. The 20-year-old had spent a month there awaiting trial on a robbery charge. Two cellmates boxed him in. One pinned Cardoza to the floor. The other slipped a braided bedsheet around his neck and tightened it.
It was just past noon, but no correctional officers took notice. No one was monitoring the video camera that watched the area and, because the facility was so outdated, officers would have had to stand directly in front of the cell to see anything inside.
The jail was built in 1968, before most of the prisoners were even born. Inmates live behind rusted bars in the aging cellblocks, where eight people share a space the size of a twobedroom apartment. The sleeping area has stacked beds bolted to the walls, opening into a dayroom that serves as a bathing and communal eating space. On that Sunday afternoon, it was a killing ground.
County officials knew the jail needed to be scrapped, its conditions branded “deplorable” in a scathing 2008 review. The outside reviewers said it was difficult to find the right parts to repair the decades-old sliding cell doors and other fixtures. Gang members mingled in blind spots where staff members were unable to keep track, and design flaws made segregating inmates exceptionally challenging.
Merced County’s corrections consultants agreed. “The Sheriff’s Department has determined that the antiquated Main Jail needs to be shut down, the infrastructure is post-salvageable, and the dysfunction of the jail layout creates problems in creating a manageable and safe environment for the staff and in-custody,” their written assessment states.
Over the years, Merced County officials hoped to fix the jail’s flaws by tapping into $2.1 billion in state construction money, a critical piece of California’s ambitious criminal justice reforms known as “realignment.” Designed to relieve unconstitutional overcrowding in state prisons, the program, which began in 2011, reclassified hundreds of crimes and diverted thousands of offenders to county jails. Sheriffs and corrections officials accepted the changes, in part, because counties received a cash incentive to rebuild or update local facilities.
So in 2013, the Merced County sheriff’s office requested funds to build a new facility for maximumsecurity inmates, a proposal that would have allowed it to close the Main Jail. But county officials failed to meet the state’s basic requirements, including properly documenting the jail’s defects. Their application fell to the bottom of the state’s rankings, and their $40 million request was rejected.
Meanwhile, conditions deteriorated in the cellblocks, and inmate-oninmate murders began. After a decade without any homicides, one man was killed in a gang assassination in 2015. Then another, in 2017.
Cardoza would be the third.
The county’s chief executive did not respond to interview requests, but, in his proposed budget last month, said the county is taking steps to improve security in its correctional facilities and intends to eventually expand its other jail to hold all inmates. The sheriff’s office declined to answer questions about inmate homicides.
A security camera recorded Cardoza’s attackers choking him to death, according to court and autopsy records. They carried him back to his jail bed and placed his lifeless body on the single bunk.
Twenty-four hours passed.
A correctional officer only discovered the corpse when he came in shortly before an afternoon court hearing for Cardoza’s robbery case. The inmate’s throat was covered in purple markings, his limbs rigid. The officer called for help, but it was too late. Cardoza had been decomposing for a full day.
New and improved facilities are a critical pillar of California’s corrections transformation. But bureaucratic roadblocks, indifference from county sheriffs and critical errors in planning by local officials have meant dozens of California jails remain broken and dangerous, unable to adequately serve an influx of inmates, while hundreds of millions of dollars to fix the aging facilities go unspent, a McClatchy and Pro-Publica investigation has found.
Statewide, officials have awarded money for 65 jail construction projects since realignment began eight years ago, according to state project status reports. 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. State and county officials have encountered a variety of delays, from securing land to passing inspections. Three jails from the earliest financing effort in 2011 have still not started construction.
Tehama County won $20 million in 2013 to build a new 64-bed jail adjacent to the existing facility in Red Bluff, state documents show. The project, between Chico and Redding in Northern California, has been mired in delays and debate, largely over how to move a main road in town. County officials say the jail won’t open until at least late 2021.
Sacramento County initially won $56.4 million in that same round of funding to build a 26-bed medical and mental health treatment facility, kitchen and three educational program buildings at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove.
Planners expected it to open by October of this year, but the project changed — and stalled — when the county received more state money because a smaller county gave up on its project and returned the award. Sacramento officials in April gave the green light to choose construction firms, with a new goal to open in 2021.
Former state officials who helped craft the realignment law said California’s worst county lockups were, for the most part, supposed to have been overhauled or replaced by now.
“I just don’t know that we’ve seen the real benefit as of yet,” said Matt Cate, the former state corrections secretary who helped oversee realignment, referring to new jails. “A lot of these are just coming online, so who knows what the benefit will be long term.”
The state agency that awards projects and oversees their construction, the Board of State and Community Corrections, said it tries to work with counties, but the agency
Inmates stand in their cell at the Merced County Main Jail, built in 1968. Inmates live behind rusted bars in the aging cellblocks, where eight people share a space the size of a two-bedroom apartment. The sleeping area has stacked beds bolted to the walls, opening into a dayroom that serves as a bathing and communal eating space.
Fabian Cardoza with his wife, Allyson Prak, in July 2016.