MERCED, Calif. — 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 No one was monitoring the video camera that watched the area and, because the facility was so outdated, officers would have had to stand directly in front of the cell to see anything inside.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 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. 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 maximum-security 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-on-inmate 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 ProPublica 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 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, 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.
A Flawed Application, Then Murder in Merced
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 maximum-security 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, then-Gov. 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-on-inmate 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.”
“I Just Can’t Afford This”
Since realignment, just 17% 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 state-funded 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.”
“Their Job Was to Make Sure That He Was Safe”
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 tough-love 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-year-old 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 law-and-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.”