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.

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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.”

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

Why did we report this story?

Under orders from the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce its prison population, California in 2011 undertook a radical transformation that shifted responsibility for thousands of inmates to county-run jails. Since then, jail inmate deaths have risen sharply. We reported this story to examine whether taxpayer-funded jails were effectively doing their jobs. The public is safer when its criminal justice system runs efficiently and fairly, and when the Constitutional rights of prisoners are protected.

Read more by clicking the arrow in the upper right.

Where did the idea come from?

McClatchy editors noticed deadly incidents at various jails in California. The most alarming was the 2017 death of a schizophrenic man restrained in a holding cell at the San Luis Obispo County Jail for nearly 48 hours. Others were inmate-on-inmate homicides that occurred in Central Valley jails. Sacramento County and Placer County jails face costly lawsuits over conditions. We wanted to find out if individual stories are part of something bigger occurring inside county jails across the state.

How did we report it?

McClatchy’s five California publications — The Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee, Modesto Bee, Merced Sun-Star and San Luis Obispo Tribune — are collaborating with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network on this investigation. The Sacramento Bee’s Jason Pohl and ProPublica’s Ryan Gabrielson analyzed state data on inmate deaths and jail operations. They’ve reviewed thousands of pages of documents, including autopsy reports, court filings, personnel and budget records, and claims for damages against county jails. Their reporting is shaped by the data, documents and interviews with sources inside and outside of the system.



The investigation continues and we want to hear from people whose lives are connected to California’s jails — correctional officers, nurses, inmates and others with experiences to share.

Who did we speak to?

Sheriffs, corrections officers and other jail staff members, current and former state officials, civil rights lawyers, criminal justice researchers, former inmates and the families of people who died inside the jails.

For more of our coverage on California jails, go here.

What do you know about county jails in California? Tell us your story here.

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.

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John Walker jwalker@fresnobee.com

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. Then-Sheriff 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.

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ERIC PAUL ZAMORA Fresno Bee Staff Photo

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 class-action 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.

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Greg Betza Special to ProPublica

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 short-term 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.”

‘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.

Andre Erkins was 30 years old with no known health conditions when he died in Fresno County Jail on Feb. 17, 2018. His family talks about how they still struggle with unanswered questions a year later.

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.

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Renee C. Byer rbyer@sacbee.com

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.

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Greg Betza Special to ProPublica

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 pepper-ball 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 multiple-day 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.

Lorenzo Herrera, 19, was strangled inside his cell in the Fresno County Jail on March 24, 2018. His parents, Carlos and Anna Herrera, talk about how they learned of his death.

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.

ProPublica data reporter Lylla Younes contributed to this story.


The Sacramento Bee and ProPublica are spending 2019 examining overcrowding, resources and inmate treatment in county jails across California. Share your story with us here or get in touch with the reporting team by emailing CaliforniaJails@propublica.org or calling/texting 347-244-2134.


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Jason Pohl reports on criminal justice for The Sacramento Bee, in partnership with ProPublica’s 2019 Local Reporting Network. His current work is examining strains in California county jails after statewide changes involving incarceration. He has reported since 2011 on public safety, mental health and disasters for newspapers in Colorado and Arizona.
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