Cruel and Unusual—Life and Death in Fresno County Jail

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Fresno County Jail

By Bob McCloskey

“The degree of civilization in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.”—Fyodor Dostoyevsky

On April 28, 2019, the Fresno Bee published a front-page article about the Fresno County Jail. It has the highest number of deaths of any California county jail. The Fresno County Jail made local, state, national and international news. This should make Sheriff Margaret Mims and the five members of the county Board of Supervisors cringe, but apparently they do not care.

In January 2018, Lorenzo Herrera, 19, Ernest Brock, 20, and Andre Erkins, 30, were booked into the Fresno County Jail. Three bookings within 48 hours, three people who went into the overcrowded jail and left dead or in a coma.

Eleven inmates died in 2018 from untreated drug and alcohol withdrawal, suicide, medical negligence and murder. Thirteen other people were beaten and hospitalized. Forty-seven deaths have occurred in the last seven years.

Two-thirds of the people kept in the jail are awaiting trial, accused but not convicted. Many of them are nonviolent offenders, and some are probably innocent.

Who is accountable? Who cares? Experts say apathy among the officials in charge has created a crisis. Don Spector, director of the Prison Law Office, said “sheriffs have been very indifferent to jail conditions.” He said that there has been a “complete lack of action.”

According to the Fresno Bee, Sheriff Mims has repeatedly characterized such deaths as the unfortunate consequence of jail life and expresses no remorse whatsoever. 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.” Mims should be asked, so let them die in an overcrowded jail then?

I have had the unfortunate experience of incarceration in a county jail. In 1969, when I was 18 years old, I spent 100 days awaiting trial in the L.A. County jail for marijuana possession and another nonviolent offense.

I was incarcerated at Wayside Honor Rancho, aka Gladiator School, in a dormitory with 90 other inmates. I was nearly raped, I was physically attacked and, like all the other inmates, I was treated like an animal by sadistic guards.

I will never forget the experience. It taught me how racist the criminal justice system is. In 1969, the majority of the inmates were Black and Latino. This is still the case.

It also taught me that if you treat people like animals, they can become more antisocial and more prone to commit crimes when released. In addition, my experience in jail taught me empathy for people in jail, something that is sorely lacking in our society. Nothing has changed in 50 years.

The Fresno County Jail has been under a federal consent decree since 2015. It requires Sheriff Mims to hire additional correctional officers, protect and provide services to inmates, ease overcrowding and provide adequate healthcare. Since the 2015 decree, lawyers and prison reform experts have had regular meetings with the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department to examine their progress in correcting conditions at the jail. Mims does not attend these meetings and sends her jail administrators instead.

After the article appeared in the Fresno Bee, I attended a Fresno County Board of Supervisors meeting and spoke to the “five little kings” about conditions in the jail. Board Chair Nathan Magsig cut me off after my allotted three minutes.

The Board made no statements in response and asked no questions. They obviously do not care and remain completely unaccountable. They are funding and presiding over an institution of death and torture. Conditions in the jail are barbaric.

Magsig and the other Board members are public servants without a conscience. Sheriff Mims and the Board of Supervisors should be aware that L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca was convicted in March 2017 of obstructing an FBI investigation of similar abuses in L.A. County jails. After losing two appeals, he is now on his way to federal prison with a three-year sentence.

It is up to us to demand human rights and human treatment for inmates. It is up to us to demand that the Board allocates funds and fixes the deplorable conditions in the jail. It is up to us to hold Sheriff Mim accountable. It is up to us to stop stigmatizing and shunning jail inmates. They are human beings and deserve basic human rights. Even a traffic violation could land you in jail.

Call or e-mail the Fresno County Board of Supervisors. E-mail Chair Nathan Magsig at District5@fresnocounty.ca.gov. Demand accountability and change. Demand public hearings, a comprehensive assessment, increased funding and more early release of nonviolent alleged offenders. Do what a civilized human being would do.

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Bob McCloskey is a retired union organizer and human rights activist.