Merced deputies took 24 hours to find body in jail; prob­lems still aren’t fixed

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY JA­SON POHL AND RYAN GABRIELSON [email protected] [email protected]­ub­

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

BEA AHBECK Merced Sun-Star file photo

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.

Courtesy of Allyson Prak

Fabian Car­doza with his wife, Allyson Prak, in July 2016.

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