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has lit­tle power over lo­cal gov­ern­ments. Aaron Maguire, le­gal coun­sel for the board, noted that there are no penal­ties when jail con­struc­tion is de­layed or projects grow more costly.

The com­mu­nity cor­rec­tions board does not be­lieve it has the power to be the coun­ties’ taskmas­ter.

“We could take the money away, but we can’t force them to build any­thing,” Maguire said.

Steve Mein­rath, who worked for nearly a decade as le­gal coun­sel for the Cal­i­for­nia Leg­is­la­ture and helped draft jail con­struc­tion leg­is­la­tion, said the goal was al­ways to award projects that would open on time.

“When one piece of this falls down,” Mein­rath said, “the whole project can be­come very dan­ger­ous.”

With dozens of county projects mov­ing glacially, the state’s crim­i­nal jus­tice over­haul is now fal­ter­ing as in­mates and cor­rec­tions staff face more and more risk.

Santa Bar­bara County, for in­stance, won funds in 2012 to build a 376-bed jail it said would quell fights and im­prove med­i­cal and mental health care. But con­struc­tion might not fin­ish un­til 2020 — three years be­hind sched­ule. Mean­while, de­sign flaws in the ag­ing jail are con­tribut­ing to in-cus­tody deaths.

In a re­port last month, a cit­i­zen panel called at­ten­tion to a sui­cide in one of the fa­cil­ity’s many blind spots. Guards put a man with a his­tory of mental ill­ness in a hold­ing cell, where he turned his shirt into a noose and hanged him­self from the cell bars, which most mod­ern jails don’t use. Hinged metal doors are con­sid­ered safer.

The man’s body was out of the cam­era’s view. The staff found him 25 min­utes later.


Lo­cated in Cal­i­for­nia’s less-af­flu­ent but agri­cul­tur­ally rich Cen­tral Val­ley, Merced County is now home to a quar­ter-mil­lion res­i­dents. Farm­ing drives the lo­cal econ­omy. Al­mond trees line the high­ways and dirt roads frame the city of Merced, whose motto is “gate­way to Yosemite.”

That bu­colic im­age con­trasts sharply with the gang-fueled vi­o­lence that drives the lo­cal crime rate. The Merced Sun-Star’s ed­i­to­rial board once la­beled the county the “mur­der cap­i­tal of Cal­i­for­nia.”

Over the past two decades, the county’s grand ju­ries — groups of vol­un­teers that in­spect parts of lo­cal govern­ment — de­scribed the Main Jail as “run-down” and un­safe for those work­ing and in­car­cer­ated in­side. They high­lighted fail­ing ven­ti­la­tion sys­tems, cracked glass win­dows and crum­bling paint. One group of in­spec­tors said the county needed to “ac­tively pur­sue” con­struc­tion of a new fa­cil­ity.

“The over­all con­di­tion of the cell blocks is de­plorable!” ju­rors wrote in 2008. “In sum, Merced County needs a new jail! If these de­fi­cien­cies are not ad­dressed quickly, the po­ten­tial for in­mate dis­tur­bances, pos­si­ble es­capes and fur­ther, more ex­pen­sive fa­cil­ity re­pairs will only grow to un­man­age­able pro­por­tions.”

In 2013, Merced County joined the line of 36 ap­pli­cants vy­ing for fund­ing from the com­mu­nity cor­rec­tions board, the group that holds the purse strings for state jail fund­ing. It ap­plied for $40 mil­lion.

The county had plans to build a new max­i­mumse­cu­rity fa­cil­ity to help stem vi­o­lence and safety threats in what of­fi­cials that year de­scribed as a “dys­func­tional” jail.

Ce­ment walls and se­cu­rity bars block views of ev­ery­thing ex­cept what’s di­rectly in front of those walk­ing through the Main Jail. It’s even hard to pray there, said Emanuel Cud­der, Merced County jail chap­lain. There are no in­mate gath­er­ing spa­ces, so vol­un­teer min­is­ters stop at every in­di­vid­ual cell to pray with de­fen­dants and pro­vide biblical read­ings, re­quir­ing five hours or more per visit.

Merced County can’t af­ford to fix the jail build­ings it­self.

“As a county that has ex­pe­ri­enced some of the worst fi­nan­cial im­pacts from the real es­tate bub­ble and ‘Great Re­ces­sion,’” of­fi­cials wrote in their ap­pli­ca­tion, “Merced County is mak­ing a sig­nif­i­cant com­mit­ment of its al­ready mea­ger re­sources” to up­grade its jail fa­cil­i­ties.

Mark Pazin, who was Merced County’s sher­iff in 2013 and head of the Cal­i­for­nia State Sher­iffs’ As­so­ci­a­tion, was among a small but pow­er­ful group of sher­iffs who sup­ported re­align­ment, an idea that had di­vided the Leg­is­la­ture. See­ing an op­por­tu­nity for jail im­prove­ments in his own county and across the state, he sided with the ar­chi­tect of the con­tro­ver­sial pro­posal, thenGov. Jerry Brown. And he and other county of­fi­cials were mov­ing ahead with their plan to shut down the ex­pen­sive, de­te­ri­o­rat­ing Main Jail and make other im­prove­ments.

But then came what Pazin deemed the “dis­ap­point­ing day in De­cem­ber of 2013.”

A re­jec­tion let­ter from the state in­formed Merced County that its pro­posal ranked next-to-last among the 11 “medium”-sized coun­ties vy­ing for funds. Eval­u­a­tors at the state said their 58-page pro­posal lacked nec­es­sary doc­u­ments show­ing the county had des­ig­nated lo­cal match­ing funds, as re­quired by the law.

County of­fi­cials failed to con­duct a pro­fes­sional as­sess­ment show­ing why a new jail was nec­es­sary. They also did not get the board of su­per­vi­sors’ of­fi­cial project ap­proval — a crit­i­cal for­mal­ity.

The county re­ceived a fail­ing grade, earn­ing just 68% of points pos­si­ble dur­ing the re­view.

“I thought we were shovel-ready for the project but ev­i­dently found out the hard way we were not,” Pazin said in a May interview. “To say I was stunned by the re­jec­tion would be an un­der­state­ment.”

The fund­ing de­nial meant the Main Jail would re­main open for the fore­see­able fu­ture. Pazin left his role as sher­iff a month later, in Jan­uary 2014, for a job in the Brown ad­min­is­tra­tion over­see­ing law en­force­ment for the state’s of­fice of emer­gency ser­vices.

On their sec­ond try for state money in 2015, Merced County of­fi­cials in­cluded the proper pa­per­work. They doc­u­mented the match­ing funds. And they com­pleted a de­tailed needs as­sess­ment ex­plain­ing where the prob­lems were — once again, the Main Jail.

Ex­cept the county didn’t ap­ply to fix any of that.

In­stead, it re­quested and was awarded $40 mil­lion to up­grade the John La­tor­raca Cor­rec­tional Fa­cil­ity, a much newer jail com­plex 20 min­utes out­side of town. The project will add 30 new med­i­cal and mental health treat­ment beds, space for pro­grams and ser­vices, and an in­take and re­lease area.

“The project does not fully meet the needs iden­ti­fied,” county of­fi­cials wrote in their ap­pli­ca­tion, “but will al­low the county to make sub­stan­tial head­way in pro­gram­ming and treat­ment.”

Merced County su­per­vi­sors explained that they chose a more mod­est project af­ter “a care­ful fis­cal eval­u­a­tion of what size jail fa­cil­ity the county could main­tain and op­er­ate on a yearly ba­sis.”

A month af­ter Merced County’s board chair­man signed the ap­pli­ca­tion in 2015, Alejandro Vega, 29, was stabbed and beaten in­side a cell at the Main Jail. He died the next day. It was the first in­mate-on­in­mate killing in the county jail in more than a decade.

In pitch­ing the up­grades to the newer fa­cil­ity, the county said build­ing on its own land would speed con­struc­tion and cut down on costs. But six years since it first ap­plied for

fund­ing to im­prove its jails and four years since it was awarded money, Merced County is still “work­ing through the de­tails” of how ex­actly to spend it, said Mike North, a county spokesman. The project hasn’t bro­ken ground.

Con­struc­tion on the med­i­cal fa­cil­ity might be­gin next year, of­fi­cials said. In its pro­posed bud­get, Merced County said it was “in the process of exploring fi­nanc­ing op­tions” for a sec­ond project phase that would con­sol­i­date the Main Jail into the other fa­cil­ity grounds.

“There is no pro­jected start date and no pro­jected close date for the Main Jail,” North said.

The com­mu­nity cor­rec­tions board said that there are of­ten com­pet­ing needs within a county. Its se­lec­tion process is not en­tirely based on where the most se­vere needs are, but whether a county has jus­ti­fied its pro­posal. Lo­cal elected of­fi­cials are re­spon­si­ble for de­cid­ing how to fix their prob­lems.

In Merced County, the per­ils re­main. Gang con­flicts played a role in Car­doza’s shower stran­gu­la­tion last year, the sher­iff’s of­fice announced.

Car­doza was a low-level mem­ber, at worst, said Allyson Prak, Car­doza’s wife and mother of his 3-year-old son, Fabian Jr. It re­mains un­clear, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments, why he was tar­geted by two other gang mem­bers. Their crim­i­nal cases are on­go­ing.

McClatchy and ProP­ub­lica filed a pub­lic records re­quest seek­ing doc­u­ments, in­clud­ing video files, used in the sher­iff’s ex­am­i­na­tion of Car­doza’s mur­der. The Merced County Coun­sel de­clined to re­lease records as the re­view re­mains on­go­ing, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to know why cor­rec­tional of­fi­cers did not no­tice the vic­tim’s body.

Prak said the sher­iff’s of­fice pro­vided no specifics about the mur­der to her, either. She’s re­lied on sec­ond­hand ac­counts from Car­doza’s friends.

“You al­ways hear about peo­ple, five years later they turn their life around,” Prak said of Car­doza’s “dumb” mis­takes. “He didn’t get to have that.”


Since re­align­ment, just 17 per­cent of jail projects awarded fund­ing have opened. Coun­ties that win money for new or upgraded fa­cil­i­ties can face a lengthy ef­fort that ends up cost­ing them — and their tax­pay­ers.

In Santa Bar­bara, for ex­am­ple, in­clement weather, as well as de­sign changes to com­ply with reg­u­la­tions, caused sig­nif­i­cant de­lays. And as projects fall years be­hind sched­ule, coun­ties eat the in­creas­ing costs that come with pay­ing plan­ners, de­vel­op­ers and work­ers who end up in project limbo. A partly state­funded jail fa­cil­ity in River­side County might be the next to open — pos­si­bly in Au­gust — but only af­ter lengthy de­lays and lo­cal of­fi­cials agreed to spend an ex­tra $10.2 mil­lion.

John Prince, who over­sees jail con­struc­tion at the state’s com­mu­nity cor­rec­tions board, said the long waits were pre­dictable given the hur­dles coun­ties have to clear be­fore they turn dirt. Lo­cal of­fi­cials have been out­bid for land and strug­gled to sort out old claims to min­eral rights on con­struc­tion sites.

Some just give up their awards. A shriv­el­ing tax base in less-pop­u­lated places still reel­ing from the eco­nomic down­turn means gov­ern­ments are on the hook for mil­lions of dol­lars needed to com­plete a project be­yond what the state will cover. Then, there’s the added cost of oper­at­ing the new fa­cil­i­ties.

“If I know in year two, in year five and year 10 I just can’t af­ford this, I have to make a de­ci­sion to walk away each time it’s of­fered to me,” said Paul A. Smith, a lob­by­ist at the Ru­ral County Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Cal­i­for­nia. “It’s bet­ter to stay in the game, reap­ply, you never know, than com­pletely walk away.”

Years af­ter win­ning re­align­ment money, su­per­vi­sors in sev­eral coun­ties ar­gued their lo­cal tax rev­enues were in­suf­fi­cient to hire the ad­di­tional em­ploy­ees needed to se­cure mod­ern jails, bud­get records show. In Shasta County, for ex­am­ple, of­fi­cials dropped projects in 2012 and 2017 be­cause they lacked op­er­a­tional fund­ing.

Prince ac­knowl­edged the prob­lem, say­ing the state board does not re­quire coun­ties to pro­vide a de­tailed ac­count­ing for the costs of run­ning the larger fa­cil­i­ties af­ter con­struc­tion. But it has not changed its ap­pli­ca­tion process or in­sti­tuted a penalty for lengthy de­lays.

“We try to reach out with the coun­ties,” Prince said. “We try to make sure that they’re mov­ing for­ward.”


A year be­fore Car­doza’s mur­der in the shower, Aaron Bonilla was in the same bank of group cells at the Merced County Main Jail. He al­legedly stole a car three days ear­lier, ac­cord­ing to pros­e­cu­tors and Bonilla’s au­topsy re­port.

Bonilla strug­gled through a tur­bu­lent child­hood, punc­tu­ated by the mur­der of his fa­ther and ad­dic­tion, his sis­ter, Tamara, said. That mor­phed into low-level crimes, couch surfing and stints at Merced County jails.

He first en­tered the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem at age 26 when, in 2012, he was ar­rested in Ne­vada County for steal­ing cop­per wire from a gen­er­a­tor sta­tion, ac­cord­ing to court records. He of­ten vis­ited Tamara Bonilla’s home in Los Banos and would al­ways re­mind his fam­ily that he loved them. He was go­ing to change his life for the bet­ter, he promised. But Tamara was “more of the toughlove type,” she said.

“I’m not go­ing to re­ward you for be­ing in jail, but that’s the safest place for you,” she told him. “That back­fired on me.”

On June 11, 2017, some­one in a neigh­bor­ing cell passed a note to one of Bonilla’s cell­mates. In­mates waited for a guard to fin­ish rounds be­fore ex­e­cut­ing the “hit,” at­tack­ing the 31-year-old as a group. Bonilla re­port­edly failed to smug­gle drugs into the lockup. With an in­mate on look­out for staff, Bonilla’s cell­mates beat him for about 11 min­utes, ac­cord­ing to the au­topsy re­port.

There are no watch sta­tions for cor­rec­tional of­fi­cers in Main Jail’s rows of group cells, the fa­cil­ity’s floor plan shows. Staff can only track what’s hap­pen­ing in­side cells from a con­trol room, lo­cated on the op­po­site end of the jail, where dozens of se­cu­rity cam­era feeds play on mon­i­tors.

In­deed, lo­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tors have doc­u­mented de­lays in the hourly rounds and raised con­cerns about the abil­ity to pass notes and con­tra­band be­tween cells.

Tamara Bonilla watched video of the at­tack in a court hear­ing for one of her brother’s killers.

“They literally took breaths in be­tween. They walked around,” she said, de­scrib­ing how Bonilla’s killers paused to rest. “Then they went back, started stomp­ing him again. Punch­ing him. They dragged him to get a bet­ter grip on his body. Some­how in there, they sliced his neck.”

The sher­iff’s of­fice has not ful­filled a records re­quest from McClatchy and ProP­ub­lica seek­ing footage of the at­tack and

de­tails about law en­force­ment’s han­dling of it.

Cor­rec­tional of­fi­cers even­tu­ally learned of Bonilla’s in­juries, moved down the nar­row hall and evac­u­ated him. “It seemed like for­ever,” his sis­ter said.

He was air­lifted to a hospi­tal in Modesto with se­vere head and neck trauma, res­pi­ra­tory fail­ure and a bleed­ing brain. He never re­gained con­scious­ness and died in hospice two weeks af­ter the at­tack. The county has de­nied any wrong­do­ing.

“I felt like they didn’t do their job. Their job is to serve and pro­tect and just be­cause my brother was on drugs, he wasn’t your ideal per­son, his life still matters,” she said, adding, “No mat­ter who he is or what he did, their job was to make sure that he was safe.”

Last month, a 25-yearold man was sen­tenced to 50 years to life for Bonilla’s mur­der af­ter a Merced County jury found him guilty. But he was only trans­ferred to a state prison re­cently, af­ter pros­e­cu­tors charged him with an­other as­sault in the Main Jail. In that case, the man al­legedly cut a fel­low in­mate more than 12 times. “Our lo­cal jail is not equipped to han­dle this kind of con­duct,” Merced County Deputy Dis­trict At­tor­ney Tyson McCoy told the judge, who agreed and ap­proved the trans­fer, the Merced Sun-Star re­ported.

The 2018 grand jury re­port re­newed calls for the county to quickly be­gin long-planned con­struc­tion be­cause Main Jail’s de­sign “does not pro­vide a safe en­vi­ron­ment for in­mates or cor­rec­tional of­fi­cers.”

Ju­rors had to be evac­u­ated dur­ing a re­cent tour be­cause of an in­mate fight.

Merced County’s top of­fi­cials cam­paign on pub­lic safety but do not fol­low through to en­sure peo­ple in the jail are ac­tu­ally safe, said Dei­dre Kelsey, who served 20 years on the Merced County Board of Su­per­vi­sors be­fore leav­ing of­fice in 2016.

Kelsey said she was sur­prised to hear about the lengthy de­lays and es­ca­lat­ing vi­o­lence in­side the Main Jail, in part be­cause she thought the state fund­ing was al­ready be­ing spent and the im­prove­ments al­ready made.

Politi­cians and the pub­lic only pay at­ten­tion to the num­ber of of­fi­cers on staff. “They look at the force, the law en­force­ment peo­ple,” Kelsey said. “They look at the peo­ple, they don’t look at the build­ing.”

In a three-sen­tence news re­lease the day cor­rec­tional of­fi­cers found Car­doza in his bed, jail of­fi­cials announced the death. They said only that staff had “dis­cov­ered a de­ceased male in­mate” and were in­ves­ti­gat­ing it as a homi­cide. “Ad­di­tional de­tails are not avail­able at this time,” the sher­iff’s of­fice wrote, “but will be re­leased as the in­ves­ti­ga­tion pro­ceeds.”

More than a year later, the sher­iff’s of­fice still has not ac­knowl­edged that the jail staff over­looked a corpse in a cell bed for more than a day. Merced County Sher­iff Verne Warnke de­clined to an­swer re­porters’ ques­tions for this story, but he has blamed low staffing lev­els for jail vi­o­lence.

“Our staffing lev­els are low, and don’t think for a minute those in­mates don’t know it,” Warnke told the Sun-Star in 2017, af­ter Bonilla’s mur­der. “We’re very sorry an in­mate had to die.”

Warnke’s re­cent lawand-or­der ini­tia­tives have not fo­cused on the jail, but in­stead on ex­pand­ing gang en­force­ment through­out the county.

Last Au­gust, two months af­ter Car­doza’s mur­der, Warnke re-es­tab­lished the Sher­iff’s Tac­ti­cal and Re­con­nais­sance Team to com­bat gang crimes. Flanked by men wear­ing tac­ti­cal vests, the sher­iff vowed in a pub­lic meet­ing that his team would be “go­ing af­ter our neme­sis on the streets.”

The jail would do its part, Warnke said. “We will make room at the inn for who­ever needs it.”

AN­DREW KUHN [email protected]­ced­sun-star.com

Merced County Sher­iff’s Of­fice head­quar­ters also houses the Merced County Main Jail.

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