‘What happened to our brother?’

Openly gay and stricken with cancer, Oak Park man feared for his safety inside downtown jail. Then his worst fears came true.

Clifton Harris’ loved ones hold a photo of the man they remember, before addiction and jail claimed him.

Clifton Harris’ loved ones hold a photo of the man they remember, before addiction and jail claimed him.

Photo by Karlos Rene Ayala

Clifton Harris’ siblings didn’t know what to expect when they heard their brother could come home.

Harris had been in jail more than a year for an assault case that was culminating in Sacramento Superior Court. In July 2016, a jury convicted Harris of what prosecutors described as a vicious attack by a career felon too volatile for the outside world. Lawyers spent months debating whether the 61-year-old Oak Park man should spend his remaining years behind bars.

While in custody, Harris filed numerous grievances about his treatment inside the jail. Harris, who was gay, claimed guards taunted him with homophobic slurs and encouraged inmates to beat him up in exchange for improved housing conditions. Harris, who had cancer, accused jail medical staff of malpractice and neglect. As his condition worsened, Harris despaired, telling relatives, his public defender and jailers that he would be dead soon.

“It’s getting worst [sic] monthly,” he wrote in one grievance dated March 2017. “Falling while writing at night hurts. Messing on my self 3 times more a week hurts. But I can barely get a change of clothes.”

Inmate welfare groups say Harris’ story is not unique. It’s just invisible.

“Someone once said a society is judged by the way it treats its most vulnerable, including prisoners,” said Aaron J. Fischer, a litigation counsel at Disability Rights California. “That has always rung true to me.”

But it hasn’t always rung true here.

Over the past decade, the main jail in particular has been subjected to numerous injury and wrongful death lawsuits, grand jury investigations and private consultations picking apart everything from a barbaric intake process to how inmates are released at all hours of the night. In a class action lawsuit filed last month, DRC and the Prison Law Office condemned conditions within the county jail system as inhumane and unconstitutional, especially for those living with disabilities, illnesses and psychological disorders.

Harris fell into each of those categories. So did the man who may have ended his life. But the lawsuit arrived too late for either of them.

In July 2017, almost one year after the jury’s guilty verdict, Jacqueline Brown got a phone call asking if she wanted to take her brother home. The call came from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the main jail. There had been an incident, a sheriff’s employee told Brown. Harris was in the hospital. The employee didn’t provide details. But if Brown agreed to the county’s terms, Harris would be released.

The vague offer troubled Brown. She punted. She learned Harris’ whereabouts and alerted her siblings. At UC Davis Medical Center, five sisters and two brothers filed into the hospital room. Sister Cathy Lester described what happened next.

“We didn’t know what they were talking about until we go to the hospital and saw this man that they call our brother,” she recalled.

Clifton Harris had been beaten beyond recognition. Metal wires hinged a reconstructed jaw. A tracheal tube hissed air into a seeping hole. A brain monitor probed for activity and found none.

A year later, his family still has the same question. Lester, the eldest, speaks for the group:

“What happened to Clifton Harris? What happened to our brother?”

‘The drug was calling him'

Born September 3, 1955, Cliff Harris didn’t enter this world a hard case. The son of a preacher father and school counselor mother, Harris arrived as part of a second wave of 10 children in the Oak Park household.

Lester remembers her younger brother being out of the closet as early as middle school. Despite this being the late 1960s and the generalization that homosexuality is more taboo in African-American culture, Lester doesn’t remember Harris’ sexual orientation being an issue. Outspoken and outgoing, Harris was also not one to be trifled with, his siblings say.

“Cliff was a fighter,” said sister Deborah Lester. “He stood his ground. For whatever he believed in, he stood his ground.”

Harris graduated from Sacramento High School in the early ‘70s. A brief flirtation with community college didn’t last. Harris navigated young adulthood as the world spun around him. In the early ‘80s, crack cocaine infiltrated his neighborhood. It was a pestilence, slow at first but sweeping and indiscriminate. Harris’ niece Monique Smith remembers having a street-level view. Neighbors shut their blinds. Popular kids became closet-smoking zombies, hustlers or both. Good homes rotted from the inside.

“It changed like that,” Smith said with a snap of her fingers. “You had to make a choice: Were you going to be on drugs or were you going to be a square?”

Like hundreds of predominantly black neighborhoods in America, Oak Park in the ‘80s was an unwilling testing ground for racially inequitable drug laws. It was a frog in steadily boiling water. Maybe Harris didn’t notice the change in temperature, but those around him did. They say his behavior mutated. His mind raced. Words scrambled out of his mouth. They didn’t always make sense. Crack turned an already protective brother who had trouble backing down into an ill-tempered prowler impatient for his next score.

“It was as if the drug was calling him,” Lester said. “That was basically his downfall.”

Harris fell for a while. He caught his first felony robbery conviction in 1984, the same year the main jail was built downtown. He became a semi-regular lodger there, and both adapted to and rebelled against the jail’s rabid internal politics and rigid hierarchy.

During one stint in 1993, after being arrested for sticking a knife to a man’s throat and stealing $53, Harris drew eight hours on lockdown. His offense? Having extra pairs of jail-issued underwear and socks in his cell. That same year, he spent three days in solitary after wrestling with an inmate over a dispute about the “toilet phone.” Harris said the inmate threatened him after he refused to bail out his latrine so the inmate could holler through the pipes at female inmates.

“I’m not going to say I didn’t swing on him,” Harris reportedly told a jail investigator at the time, according to an internal disciplinary report. “He started the fight over the fact that I would not use my toilet to talk to some females for him.”

Harris was in solitary again four months later for unclear reasons when a different inmate attacked him from behind over another toilet phone dispute, disciplinary records show.

According to several incarceration experts, Harris and other inmates were being punished with the kind of extreme isolation that could only exacerbate their mental declines.

Out in the world, the vicious cycle of committing crimes to feed his addiction continued. Convictions followed in 1999, 2002 and 2004. In 2006, Harris pleaded no contest to two felony counts of assault with a deadly weapon after police say he dragged an old classmate outside his home and started cutting up his chest with a knife until the victim promised to get money from his mother’s house. Instead the man phoned police and Harris earned four years in prison.

After his release, Harris was in his mid-50s and finally ready for a change, his siblings say. An out-of-state stint at a Mississippi correctional work program gave Harris some of his self-worth back, Lester said.

“When he came back, he came back a different person,” Lester said. “He was free.”

Harris treated his new life like a salvage operation. He became a regular at Calvary Christian Center, hitching rides or walking to the North Sacramento church to attend men’s meetings, including one devoted to recovery. Harris followed in his late father’s footsteps. He called himself a deacon, a man of God, and served meals to people living on the same streets that he once did. He reconnected with family, giving informal sermons while tutoring his nieces and nephews how to bait a fishing tackle or stay upright on a bicycle. He scolded them to look upon his long age in the wilderness as a cautionary tale.

“He didn’t want them to end up like him,” Lester said.

“My brother wasn’t an angel, but he had a big heart,” she adds. “But he had turned his life around.”

Then Christmas Eve 2015 spun it right back around.

The system

Lorenzo Jesus Mays has been in the main jail for eight years on a felony murder allegation that he has yet to stand trial on due to an intellectual disability. For nearly all that time, the 35-year-old has been in solitary confinement, the class action complaint states, where he’s experienced auditory hallucinations, suicidal thoughts and a Vitamin D deficiency due to the lack of natural light.

Mays is one of the five class plaintiffs standing in for an inmate population that spans approximately 3,800 between the main jail and its sister facility on the outskirts of Elk Grove.

One of the architects of the lawsuit says there’s a simple reason that you should care.

“Mistreatment of prisoners actually does a disservice to the public,” Fischer said. “What I mean by that is when you place people with disabilities and mental health conditions in decrepit conditions without adequate care, the vast majority of these people will soon be our neighbors again.”

But reason doesn’t survive in solitary confinement. The jail’s version of segregated housing is a central component of the class action lawsuit against the county. Ironically, five expert opinions solicited by the county are now providing the strongest indictments.

In June 2016, corrections expert Eldon Vail found the jails so dangerously understaffed that the result was a system operating “in a state of near perpetual emergency.” That translated into the overuse of solitary confinement “both for the mentally ill and the non-mentally ill.” His prognosis was so bad that Vail predicted federal litigation on the conditions inside “would likely be successful.”

The jail’s abnormal approach to isolating difficult inmates is called T-Sep, for “total separation.” According to a May 2017 assessment from James Austin, a nationally recognized expert on mass incarceration, T-Sep is “unique to Sacramento County,” not just for what it’s called but how it’s used as a catchall for unruly inmates, those needing protection and those with severe psychological issues. A review of the main jail’s T-Sep population in January 2017 determined that 74 percent of the 172 inmates required some level of mental health treatment. Meanwhile, many of the interviewed T-Sep inmates told Larkin’s team they were given no formal explanation why they had been stockaded in small, single cells for all but three hours a week, or informed how they can request a move to less restrictive housing.

The perils of being placed in solitary confinement, no matter what it’s called, aren’t theoretical.

In 2016 alone, 10 inmates attempted suicide, according to a Sacramento County grand jury report. Two were successful. Since 2016, at least nine people have perished inside the local penitentiaries, an SN&R review of media releases and coroner records found.

Much of this is a capacity issue, the experts say. Since 2009, the number of jail inmates diagnosed with mental disorders has more than doubled, even as the overall jail population has declined. It’s currently estimated that between 30 and 40 percent of the local inmate population experiences mental health issues.

Yet the jail lost half of its psychiatric staff during the economic downturn and hasn’t really recovered.

“As the experts have shown, this is one of the most dangerously understaffed jails in all of California,” Fischer told SN&R.

While a sheriff’s spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment, Fischer said the department has actually been receptive to that feedback.

“Our impression is that they’re committed to improvements in a meaningful way,” he said. “The Board of Supervisors holds the money bags.”

And it’s reluctant to open them up given the estimated costs of improvement.

“This settlement proposal would require at least $50 million annually in operating costs with capital costs that could exceed $160 million,” Board of Supervisors Chair Susan Peters said in a statement released by the county. “Accepting these demands would require us to make drastic reductions in all of the services the County offers, which would have catastrophic consequences on the General Fund and a devastating effect countywide on our residents’ quality of life.”

Pitting law-abiding citizens against jailbirds has been an effective public relations strategy in the past, and remains pretty bankable in Sacramento. But federal court judges, including the ones who threatened to take over California’s unconstitutionally overcrowded prisons last decade, insist on thinking of prisoners as human beings—even when they’re accused of violent acts.

His final trial

It was a few minutes shy of 2 a.m. on December 24, 2015.

Police found the man on the ground in a residential neighborhood in South Sacramento. “C.L.” sat on the corner of Mangrum Avenue and Hogan Drive, beneath outstretched tree limbs and surrounded by one-story homes with curved front yards and chain-link fences. He was a bloody mess, according to a Sacramento Police Department narrative. A laceration along C.L.'s forehead had clotted into a large hematoma and his lip was torn. There were puncture wounds in his calf and other scratches on his arms and legs.

C.L. told police he had accepted a late-night invitation to “chill” at Harris’ home. The two were doing just that in Harris’ bedroom when something happened. Only the two men know what that something was.

(Efforts to contact C.L. through Facebook were unsuccessful, so SN&R is only using his initials.)

Both C.L. and Harris would accuse the other of making an unwanted pass that prompted conflict. C.L. told police that Harris flew into a violent rage after he rebuffed him. C.L. said Harris attacked him with a screwdriver and sicced his pitbull-bulldog mix onto him. The police report recorded injuries to C.L.'s arms, legs and scrotum that were consistent with dog bites.

Harris told police he simply told C.L. to leave his bedroom and didn’t know how the man got injured. On the ride out to the jail, the police report states, Harris allegedly posed a question: “Did he tell you the real reason I sicced my dog on him?”

The officers asked why. Harris said he didn’t want to say any more.

But the incident erased all of Harris’ recent progress. He was back inside jail, where fate dealt him another blow. In January 2016, he was injured in a jailhouse brawl, internal records show. While being treated for a broken arm and other injuries, it was discovered that Harris had small-cell lung cancer. He was rehoused in the medical ward, which ostensibly provides around-the-clock care. But the wing is understaffed and jail is not the ideal place to treat debilitating illnesses.

While dealing with the effects of his diagnosis and treatment, Harris had trouble steering clear of the bulls. Jailers wrote him up for not rising for counts, for coughing up phlegm, for being “blatantly disrespectful” after complaining that a deputy cuffed up his recently healed arm too tight and criticized his slow shamble to the courtroom.

“So now I gotta walk the way you want me to walk mother fucker?” Harris said, according to the deputy’s report.

He was punished with lockdown and full restrictions.

His case, meanwhile, was hard-fought. Harris’ public defender successfully showed that all of C.L.'s injuries came from the dog and contended that it only attacked C.L. in defense of its owner. The jury was partially swayed, but convicted Harris of two felony assault crimes and one count of depriving the victim of his freedom. Harris already had three prior strike convictions on his rap sheet. Prosecutors considered him a frequent-flier who had been given plenty of chances. This time they wanted him sent up for the rest of his life.

The guilty verdict arrived July 15, 2016. As the judge thanked the jury for performing its sacred duty and recited the required legalese, Harris made an utterance. According to jail reports, he said, “Can we hurry up so I can kill myself?”

For the comment, Harris was gowned in a bulky, blue safety suit and locked in a window-encased classroom where potentially suicidal inmates are put when there isn’t room in the psychiatric inpatient ward. After three hours in the fishbowl, a psych evaluator cut Harris loose.

Built in 1984, the Sacramento County Main Jail is a 12-story high rise in downtown.

Photo by Anthony Ramos

The cellmate

On March 20, 2016, officers arrived in a quiet neighborhood on Clay Street and found Shelly Allen dead inside her home. The 49-year-old woman had suffered “traumatic injuries,” according to a media release at that time.

About 15 hours after that Sunday morning discovery, Willie Fred Roberson was arrested in an alley just down the street on a seemingly unrelated felony vandalism charge. According to the charging document from the city attorney’s office, Roberson also had an eight-month-old warrant for his arrest on city code violations—namely being in a public park after dark and remaining in a children’s playground while not supervising children. Roberson was inside the county jail for those minor offenses when detectives working the Allen murder decided they liked Roberson for it. It’s unclear why. Police would only reveal that they believed Roberson knew the victim.

Sgt. Vance Chandler, a department spokesman, told SN&R that access to the case file had been sealed even from him. “You picked a good one,” he said.

Online court records show Roberson has a criminal record dating back to at least 1993, when he was convicted of felony burglary. In the ensuing years, he picked up more convictions—for making criminal threats, domestic violence, assault with a deadly weapon and others. The DA’s office filed an amended complaint last month alleging that Roberson murdered Allen with a metal pipe and a “stabbing instrument.”

As the case slogged through continuances and court-ordered psychological evaluations to determine whether he was mentally competent to stand trial, Roberson cultivated a reputation within the county jail. According to an internal report, a law enforcement web application used to track “known” persons indicated Roberson “had been assaultive towards custodial officers.”

There was a place inside the jail for inmates like Roberson. It was called “T-Sep.”

Harris would end up there, too, as he came into conflict with his jailers about the quality of medical care he was receiving inside.

His attorneys had successfully motioned to have the judge in his case removed and were exploring options for a retrial. Harris was trying to hold on long enough to see that day.

The oft-written-up inmate became a prolific writer himself, submitting grievance letters, also called kites, in an attempt to improve the conditions of his care. They covered a spectrum. He found the nursing staff disrespectful. He wrote a grievance. His cell was an ice box. He wrote a grievance. The staff shut off his intercom. He wrote a grievance. He was left drenched in his own filth when the chemo induced uncontrollable bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. He wrote a grievance.

His printed kites received neatly typed responses from the patient grievance coordinator. They mostly concluded the same way: “This review indicates your assessed medical needs are being met appropriately in accordance to current policy.”

He received this response even after a bad batch of meds inflated his head to twice its size in February 2017. His sister Deborah Lester visited him, and remembers a disfigured man on the other side of the visitation glass struggling with the jail phone. She drew in her breath and thought of an old Cher movie.

“I cried all the way home,” she said. “Because all I could see was the [1985 film] Mask.”

Harris was written up for being verbally abusive toward the medical staff. He was placed in T-Sep, which the class action lawsuit describes as a concrete sensory deprivation chamber with “no fresh air or natural light, no clocks, and no method to track time.” He spent all but 30 minutes a day there. The light bar went out. He wrote a grievance. He received a response.

“As discussed with you numerous times, Your custody history has been reviewed by the classification officers and you have been classified as T-SEP,” Sgt. Scott Hufford wrote. “Your cooperation with Deputies and Medical staff is vital to providing timely professional services on the medical floor. We realize there are many challenges associated with being incarcerated. We will assist you in any capacity within the scope of our duties. Your cooperation would greatly be appreciated.”

He was eventually moved back to the medical pod, but didn’t stay there long. Harris was getting desperate. According to a March 2017 grievance, he had trouble staying on his feet. He was falling. He had been put on nine different medications, none of them effective, some of them disastrous. He felt his mortality loom and made a confession: The tough O.G. from Oak Park could no longer take care of himself.

“I’ve been a Level IV over 15 years and I’m used to looking out for me,” he wrote. “I need a [cellmate] … to help make sound decisions how to get the [illegible] up without busting my head open. At least talk to me please.”

This time they listened. Harris was transferred to the less restrictive outpatient psychiatric pod, a clustering unit for inmates who aren’t deemed an immediate risk to themselves or others. His request for a cellmate was heeded. Officials selected someone who had recently come off T-Sep status as well. The inmate’s name was Willie Roberson.

The attack

First-year Deputy Christopher Vagadori was alone in the main jail’s control room on 3 East when he noticed an inmate had pressed his emergency button. It was Roberson over in the outpatient psych pod. He said he was having a problem with his cellmate. Roberson sounded calm, Vagadori thought. Probably a verbal tiff. The rookie officer got on the comms and told the deputies assigned to 3 West to check it out.

Three minutes later, Deputy Robert J. Robinson was first to arrive from across the hall. He clocked trouble through the small window in the heavy door. He told Control to buzzer the lock. The jailer pried open 304 to find the walls and floor smeared in blood. Robinson spit a backup request into his radio mic and eyeballed the scene. At his feet: inmate Harris, splayed on his back, unresponsive, white fragments and viscera pooling around a battered face. Sitting on the top bunk: inmate Roberson, shaking and talking fast.

The deputy marked the time: 0808 hours, June 16, 2017.

Harris and Roberson had shared the cell for eight days.

How and why they were paired up is unclear, but likely occurred through the jail’s internal assessment process, which also suffers from chronic understaffing, said Fischer, one of the attorneys behind the class-action lawsuit.

Harris’ siblings contend their brother, in his weak and vulnerable state, shouldn’t have been housed with a violent homicide suspect who had a documented record of assaulting staff.

“He shouldn’t have been put with a lifer,” said brother Michael Lester, who has also done time in the county jail.

Harris’ attorney agrees.

“It showed a certain indifference, or at least insensitivity, to what could happen to him,” said Mark Merin, who filed a federal claim against the Sheriff’s Department on behalf of Harris.

Back inside 304, Roberson sat cuffed up on his bed. More officers arrived and scoped the mess. Deputy Robinson followed protocol. He escorted Roberson to the medics, who tended and x-rayed lacerations on the knuckles of his right hand and a small cut on the bottom of his right foot. While kicking his cellmate in the mouth, Harris’ teeth got in the way.

Medics cleared Roberson. Robinson led him away. He advised Roberson of his Miranda rights. Roberson said he understood. He claimed self-defense. He told Robinson that the 61-year-old who puttered around on a walker was going to rape him. He said Harris threw a roll of toilet paper at him, pulled down his pants and started to masturbate. The story kept changing. The one constant was that Roberson admitted he was the one who punched and stomped Harris.

Harris kept getting up, he said.

It’s unclear how long Harris lay unconscious on the cell’s floor. According to records of the internal investigation and summaries of staff accounts reviewed by SN&R, the jail was understaffed that day. Roberson’s emergency request is logged at 8:08 a.m. A UC Davis Medical Center emergency room report shows Harris arriving 40 minutes later.

The injuries were gratuitously severe. Neurosurgeons inserted a brain-pressure monitor. It gave off bad news. Doctors took their patient off sedatives to evaluate cognitive function. There was none.

“His brains were beaten like scrambled eggs,” Cathy Lester said. “That’s what we were told.”

Clifton Harris’ siblings didn’t know how badly their brother had been injured until they visited him in the hospital last July.

Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Brown

The aftermath

Lester and her siblings didn’t learn that Harris had been brutally attacked for more than two weeks, until July 3, 2017. That’s when Harris’ sister Jacqueline Brown received the strange call asking if she wanted to take her brother home and prosecutors notified Harris’ public defender that they’d be seeking a “compassionate release” immediately after the Fourth of July.

Instead of granting a compassionate release, a judge agreed to a separate request from the DA’s office to knock his bail down to $1,000. One week after Harris’ family learned he was in the hospital, he was bonded out by a mysterious benefactor. The person who paid his bond worked for George Hills Company Inc., the county’s primary handler of liability claims.

In short, the Sheriff’s Department, DA’s office and George Hills—three entities that receive funding from the county—successfully made it so Harris was no longer a county expense. If you’re wondering if this happens often, Merin said it doesn’t.

“This was unique in the annals,” he said.

While the county may have been in a hurry to erase Harris from its ledger, his family was still trying to piece together what happened.

At the hospital, Harris’ loved ones struggled to recognize him. The body handcuffed to the gurney had gray skin. Staples zippered its skull closed. Its pulse whispered. Their hearts sunk.

“This is from the dark ages,” Lester said. “I know I left there understanding that.”

Doctors were precluded from telling the family how Harris had been injured. All they could tell them was that he would never get better. Harris wasn’t their next of kin; he was county property, an inmate of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. Hence the armed sentries making sure Harris didn’t escape.

“Brain-dead lying in the bed. And they said, ‘You understand we have to do that because he’s our prisoner,'” Lester said. “And I said, ‘You know what? If he can get up and run, I want to see it. I be glad.’ I didn’t take any offense to that.”

But she does take offense to the notion that Roberson acted alone, especially after the DA’s office declined to file charges against him for the assault due to “insufficient evidence,” said DA spokesperson Shelly Orio. Orio said the DA’s homicide bureau chief is reevaluating the case to see if homicide charges are warranted.

Harris died March 2. His death was initially posted on the county coroner’s website, but is no longer available. An autopsy has still not been completed, county Coroner Kimberly Gin told SN&R on Monday.

The sum total is that no one has been held responsible for the death of Clifton Harris. The lack of accountability has corroded the family’s trust in the official story.

“This has to be a cover up,” Lester said. “It has to be a cover up.”

Without answers to their questions, they’ve speculated their own. They suggest deputies may have had a direct hand in Harris’ death.

Merin’s lawsuit claims the Sheriff’s Department is responsible, but in a different fashion. The civil rights attorney’s claim asserts Harris’ “catastrophic injuries” were a direct result of Sheriff Scott Jones and his department’s “failure to protect him from a known threat.”

Merin has received so many jail and hospital records through the discovery process that he’s enlisted the family’s help in combing through the material. He’s provided documents to extended family members, asking them to crowdsource the investigation and flag aspects they find of note.

Each of the siblings has a unique role in the investigation, informed by their lived experiences and place in the familial pecking order. Patricia is the hostess, the home she inherited from their mother serving as family headquarters. Deborah is the skeptical one, sizing up the reporters and scrutinizing their agendas from behind dark sunglasses. Michael is the streetwise one, drawing from his own experience in county jail to question why it took so long for paramedics to reach his brother. And Cathy is the encouraging big sister, steering the conversation and commending those around her for making incisive contributions.

“You’re doing an awesome job,” she told Michael, as he struggled to describe what happened to their brother.

Together they pore over hundreds of pages of documents, pick apart grainy surveillance videos and exchange theories about a mystery without simple answers. For the large, tight-knit family, which has anchored this part of Oak Park as it’s been shaped by outside forces for generations, it’s a conspiracy and a calling.

“He stayed alive for a reason,” Cathy Lester said of her brother Cliff. “He needs for us to tell the injustice.”