SF Chronicle: Expense, welfare keys to jail issue
Original article can be found in the San Francisco Chronicle
2 Sides attempt to make moral case to sway vote
by Emily Green
Robert Greve has seven years in and out of custody and nothing good to say about San Francisco’s County Jail at the Hall of Justice on Bryant Street. It’s freezing. It smells. The food is bad. There are few counseling or educational programs, and the transgender inmate feels unsafe.
“They don’t got no place for us,” Greve said from the jail.
For years, city officials have discussed closing County Jail No. 4 and replacing it. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors will vote on financing a new facility. And, in the midst of a national rethinking of long-term prison sentences and a shift away from incarceration toward rehabilitation and diversion programs, many expect the board to say no amid growing questions about its necessity. But both supporters and opponents of the new jail have framed their position as the fiscally responsible and humane thing to do, and the debate has raised complicated questions.
Without a new jail, will inmates continue to languish in a seismically unsafe building that has no space for programming? Is there enough capacity in the city’s three other jails to absorb the inmates housed at County Jail No. 4, or will that lead to overcrowding and safety problems? Does building a new jail simply fulfill the adage that the more jails you build, the more inmates will be found to fill them?
“It would be a bad outcome to hold people in a dilapidated facility, and it would be a bad outcome to build a new facility with a large capacity of beds to incarcerate people who probably should not be incarcerated pretrial in the first place,” said Hadar Aviram, a criminal justice expert and law professor at UC Hastings College of the Law.
The question about what to do has added urgency because the state has agreed to give the city $80 million to help offset the projected $240 million price tag of building the 384-bed jail. If the board rejects the money Tuesday, there is no guarantee the state will make the offer again.
A cavernous facility, County Jail No. 4 has an outdated linear design, with cells on each side of a narrow hallway. Guards have a clear view of the cells only when standing in front of them, making inmate activity difficult to monitor. The jail has few security cameras, as city officials are reluctant to invest in a building they want to replace.
Mayor Ed Lee cites the threat of a lawsuit as a driving force behind rebuilding the jail. Indeed, the security risks are similar to those at the old jail in San Bruno, where an inmate was brutalized and raped. He sued, and in 2004 after years of legal wrangling, the city rebuilt the facility in a design intended to provide better security. At the new jail, guards can view inmates all the time, and it has extensive counseling and educational programs.
But several prisoner rights lawyers said they are skeptical of the need for a new jail, including Ernest Galvan, who successfully sued the state for providing inadequate mental care in its prison system.
He said the real problem is the city uses its jail “disproportionately to hold people picked up for 5150s” — people who have a mental disorder that makes them a danger to themselves or others. “No matter how nice the new jail is going to be, it’s going to be a jail, not a hospital.”
San Francisco is already a leader of a national shift away from mass imprisonment, a change spurred by its enormous cost and renewed skepticism of its effectiveness. The city has cut its jail population in half over the past decade with the implementation of new criminal justice policies that emphasize rehabilitation over incarceration.
Sheriff-elect Vicki Hennessy said the population is not likely to decrease further, and the city has an obligation to provide the “best possible resources and the best possible housing” for those incarcerated. County Jail No. 4, she said, is “a horrible jail.”
Board of Supervisors President London Breed, who has vacillated on whether to support the project, recently came out strongly against it. Breed agreed the conditions at County Jail No. 4 are inhumane — her brother was incarcerated there for robbery — but criticized the proposed replacement as too big and too expensive.
“I asked the folks who were responsible … to come back with something that was less expensive. That dealt with mental health and tried to address some of the major challenges we are having in the city with this particular population. And all we got was a jail with reduced beds and 47 more possible mental health beds at San Francisco General (Hospital), and that’s just not good enough.”
On Monday, a coalition of 31 groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, sent a letter to the mayor and Board of Supervisors urging them to reject the project. “San Francisco has the opportunity to continue to lead the state and the country in pursuing innovative alternatives to incarceration,” the letter states.
James Austin is a corrections expert and the former director of the Institute on Crime, Justice and Corrections at George Washington University who analyzed San Francisco’s jail capacity. He concluded there is not enough room in San Francisco’s three other open jails to accommodate the inmates now housed at County Jail No. 4.
“You can’t close Bryant Street until you open up something new,” Austin said. “No matter what, you are going to have to spend some money on infrastructure.”
Austin did not weigh in on whether the city should build a new structure or renovate an empty jail at San Bruno, which was closed in 2010 as the jail population plummeted. The sheriff’s department believes that the 372-bed dormitory-style facility cannot safely accommodate the medium- and high-risk inmates who now make up the majority of the jail population.
Officials in the mayor’s administration say the cost of remodeling the San Bruno facility, combined with the cost of transporting inmates to and from court, is more expensive than building a new jail in the city. Opponents have questioned that math.
Meanwhile, interviews with inmates held at County Jail No. 4 suggest most believe the city should not spend money on a new jail.
‘A lot of empty beds’
“Why would they build a new jail?” said Terence Singleton, 29. “You got a lot of empty beds around here.”
Just a few months ago, the project appeared to have the support of a majority of the Board of Supervisors. But that support has eroded in recent weeks amid growing concerns about the cost and necessity of the project. At least five of the 11 supervisors are expected to vote against the project, with three supporting it and three undecided.
On Friday, Supervisor Aaron Peskin said he believes there are “alternatives” to building a new jail but hadn’t made a final decision.
“This is not a yes-or-no kind of thing,” Peskin sad. “There are a lot of moving pieces.”
Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle San Francisco Supervisor David Campos speaks against the proposal for a new jail at a news conference outside City Hall. Building a 384-bed jail is projected to cost $240 million.