No correction officer noticed when two inmates at the dilapidated Merced County, Ca., Jail killed another, the third such incident in three years. 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. County officials knew the jail needed to be scrapped, its conditions branded “deplorable” in a scathing 2008 review, ProPublica and McClatchy Newspapers report. 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 challenging.
Over the years, 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.” The county 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. New and improved facilities are a critical pillar of California’s corrections transformation. 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 serve an influx of inmates, while hundreds of millions of dollars to fix the aging facilities go unspent. Statewide, officials have awarded money for 65 jail construction projects since realignment began eight years ago. Only 11 have opened. Most of the rest of the projects are several years behind schedule.