Three people who walked into the overcrowded Fresno County, Ca., Jail left on gurneys, dead or barely alive. Their fates set the stage for the deadliest year in at least two decades at the jail, a sprawling complex of jam-packed cells, report the Sacramento Bee and ProPublica. 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. 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. 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. These less affluent counties in California’s Central Valley watched inmate homicides triple.