Sunday, May 9, 2021
Uncategorized Should San Francisco build a new jail? It's not...

Should San Francisco build a new jail? It’s not an easy question



Inside the county jail at San Bruno

By Tim Redmond

The first thing you notice about the San Francisco County jail in San Bruno is how (relatively) chill it is.

I’ve been in plenty of jails, sometimes as a journalist, sometimes as a prisoner, and I can tell you: They don’t tend to be mellow, relaxed places. Your typical county lockup is overcrowded, hot in the summer, cold in the winter, filled with very unhappy people – and tense.

The minute you walk into most jails, you feel the pressure, simmering, everywhere. You sense a seething anger and frustration as a large number of men are crammed into a small space that they hate – typically with nothing to do.

The guards are on edge, too, just waiting for the problems they know are about to explode.

At San Bruno, where I recently spent half a day (yes, voluntarily, they haven’t caught me doing anything illegal in a while) there’s a very different vibe. I wouldn’t say the prisoners are happy, exactly; hard to be happy in jail, no matter how nice it is. But that scary edge just isn’t there – and it’s easy to see the two reasons why:

For starters, everyone’s busy most of the time. Inmates are either in class, getting a GED or learning a skill (bicycle repair is popular) or they’re in violence prevention sessions, or they’re meditating.

Yes, they teach transcendental meditation in the SF county jail. It’s the kind of thing you might expect from a sheriff who was once a Green Party member, but it’s actually working. You can tell by walking around. (more after the break)

Marke B.
Marke Bieschke is the publisher and arts and culture editor of 48 Hills. He co-owns the Stud bar in SoMa. Reach him at marke (at), follow @supermarke on Twitter.


  1. I think there could be a more productive investment in training of shelter staff than building a new jaill.

  2. After visiting various shelters in San Francisco, it appears there is a revolving door from the jails to the shelters, and back to the streets because of the rude attitudes of some of the monitors at the shelters, specifically Next Door Shelter, formerly named MSC North and Pierce Arrow building. The monitors and social workers there are apparently primarily interested in moving people from one shelter to another, and housing is only available if the guests have a substantial income to pay the required rent. Further, those who are vulnerable are sometimes moved on a one-way street to uninhabitable hotel rooms, then transported to ER where permanent closure is inevitable and they are placed on life support for the duration of time to determine location of relatives if any.

    In my opinion, there should be more careful screening of the staff to hire those who are qualified instead of those who have been exposed to the system and incaracerated because of their unacceptable habits, and therefore sometimes transfer these habits to the guests and instead of relating in a positive way, have become a symbol of fear instead of setting a peaceful and constructive example in positive ways to conduct a shelter.

  3. Tim,
    Nice piece. First time I’ve visited your site and now I have to marathon read it over next week or so. Good to see you still in the day-to-day but I’ll ask you what everyone asks me …. “Where’s the fucking book?!?”
    You’re hell of an analyst and institutional memory.
    Lemme tell you a story.
    Many years ago when I was teaching in a juvenile facility in South Carolina I noticed a fascinating scene that repeated itself.
    Kids would age out and be joyfully released but back in a week or two.
    That’s not unusual you say?
    It is when you realize that they weren’t back because they got re-arrested.
    They were back because they had no place to go and didn’t want to get in more trouble .
    They’d sleep on couches or anywhere the staff would let them and I’m not being
    at all sarcastic when I say that the number one response of inmates and staff was one of embarrassment and shame. Of course they got fed and were allowed to use the facilities.

    Twenty years or so passed.

    I was covering the SF BOS and Tony Hall was pushing a piece of legislation that built a far bigger SF Juvie Hall than warranted by numbers but if they didn’t take one at that size under State forumula they got none at all.

    People got up and supported both sides.

    As you do here.

    You know?

    No more jails or bigger jails cause our society is fucked up and we’ll need em.

    I got up and related my experience in South Carolina and said that they could always use extra cell space for the kids who were released and had nowhere to go.

    Sad, but truel.

    Go Niners in an hour and a half!


  4. A few more thoughts about this issue. The old jail, which is in a building that has been declared seismically unsafe, has been condemned. It is coming down. Either we build a new facility in town, a better facility or we force all of its inmates to reside way down south in the city of San Bruno, an unfair burden on their visiting families.

    If they do go to San Bruno, however, that facility would also have to be further built out to accommodate all of the inmates now at 850 Bryant. Currently, the only open interior space down south is in a large warehouse, an undesirable solution for housing hundreds of inmates. Either way, construction will occur.

    Finally, a portion of the construction costs will be covered by a State of California grant, money that can’t be diverted to something else for our city. Either we take the state money for this project or we lose it.

    In short, I say rebuild the old jail and do it right, with a focus on rehabilitation, mental health treatment and education.

  5. Who’s going to assure us that new jail space wouldn’t be used for more jail beds in the future instead of the programs that they’re promising us? As SF is being gentrified, and the poor are being displaced, homelessness is being criminalized by laws like sit-lie and proposed nighttime park closings. I think it likely there would be more incarceration in the future, and new jail space would make that possible.

  6. The sheriff keeps on touting that this new jail will be more “family friendly”, easier for prisoners to get visitors. If you talk to anyone who has had a loved one in jail, it’s very difficult to get in to visit your loved one now. They have limited visiting hours, and only a few slots. The jail to be replaced, CJ4, (CJ3 is already closed) only takes visitors on weekends, and you have to show up at 7:30am to get one of the limited slots. You can only visit at CJ5 now through an online scheduling system, which is supposed to be expanded to all the jail visitations. This is going to cause a hardship to many low income families who don’t have computers and internet at home, which is whose families end up in our jail. A fellow social worker friend has had her daughter in the SF county jail several times in the past, and has had horrible experiences visiting her daughter in CJ2. Besides the difficulty of getting in, she has had to be subject to being treated like a sub-human being by the sheriffs on duty.

    No matter how “family friendly” you make a jail, the majority of family members who have had a loved one in jail or prison will tell you they’d prefer to have their loved one at home, getting the services they need in their communities. It’s a complete societal failure that more and more it is the case, that for someone to get the services they need they have to go to jail. Furthermore, services delivered in the community cost a fraction of what they cost in jail, and research proves they are more effective. There are plenty of models that other jurisdictions are trying out, especially in regard to bail reform, and pretrial diversion. If we spend $290 million plus 30 year bond interest, what is the incentive let alone the resources, for the D.A., the sheriff and city government to look into those alternatives? Incarceration doesn’t solve social problems, giving people what they need to be secure and healthy in their community solves social problems.

  7. As an architect who has researched prison and jail design for ten years, I agree that the San Bruno jail is far better than the Hall of Justice. But what this piece is missing is a sense of alternatives that could be used instead of jail for many of the people currently inside. Tour the Probation Department’s Community Alternative Services Center, to see alternatives from law enforcement. Or visit the Richardson Apartments at Gough and Grove or the Aarthi Hotel in the Tenderloin to see how supportive housing can keep people out of jail, providing services without attaching a criminal record. This jail is slated to cost $290 Million to build – we could get a lot more for our money building supportive services, and those will probably not be obsolete 10, 30 or 50 years from now.

    Raphael Sperry, AIA
    President, Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility
    San Francisco, CA

  8. The fewer jails the better. But if someone is going to have a chance at formulating a new life from prison, the more it seems like home, the more chance he/she has. Purpose of any jail, regardless, should be healing, helping people become “whole”.

  9. “Nice cells”???? The prisoners are still locked up at night. But there are federal prisons for non-violent upper-class prisoners where the prisoners live in dorms. These prisons are located out in the country, where there is fresh air and agricultural work. These prisons are cheap to build because they resemble summer camps. Having visited prisons in Peru and Chile, they do not have prison uniforms, which create an unhealthy atmosphere and prisoners there have a say in the food that is cooked.

  10. The replacement jail will have fewer cells but more program space. It will also have a much more family friendly visiting environment. The current one is oppressive. I just saw it during a jail tour as part of a program evaluation for the Mental Health Board.

    If its not built, however, then visiting families for male inmates will have to travel way down to San Bruno, which for those without cars, can take the better part of a day.

    Defense attorneys would also have to travel down south to the city of San Bruno which will reduce the frequency and duration of visits.

    In other words, not building this jail in San Francisco will hurt inmates, especially those who are the poorest.

    David Elliott Lewis, Ph.D.
    Co-Chair, Mental Health Board of the City and County of San Francisco
    Member, Community Housing Partnership, Board of Directors
    Tenant Advocate, Central City SRO Collaborative

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