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Friday, June 18, 2021

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UncategorizedShould San Francisco build a new jail? It's not...

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

The “pods” where the prisoners live are modern and well-designed. Every living area is self-contained, with cells, a classroom/day area, a library/quiet area, and a gym. With basketball hoops that have actual nets.

At any point during the day, the inmates who aren’t in class can get exercise. The door to the gym is unlocked.

The deputies who supervise these pods aren’t walled off behind bulletproof glass; they’re out on the floor, with the inmates. Talking, checking things out, and generally getting treated the same way they treat the prisoners – with respect.

The second thing you notice about the San Bruno facility is that there aren’t any locks on the doors. Everything is remote controlled; a camera over the door lets the folks in the main control room know you want to pass. So nobody can escape by overwhelming a guard and stealing the keys. In fact, it’s pretty hard to imagine how anyone would escape from this place.

(The third thing you notice is that the prisoners seem to like the sheriff. Everywhere Ross Mirkarimi goes in the jail, people come up and ask him questions. He eats lunch there every now and then.)

It’s a sharp, sharp contrast to the lockup upstairs at the Hall of Justice on Bryant St., a hellish place where nobody ought to have to live.



The old jail: it’s nasty and nobody should live there

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There are really three San Francisco jail facilities, the one in San Bruno, a new one behind the Hall of Justice – and the old ones on the sixth and seventh floors of the Hall.

In San Bruno, the notion of incarceration (which is not something I support) seems almost humane. In San Francisco, in the old-fashioned crumbling seventh-floor jail in a building that has to be torn down soon, you feel like you’re in Mississippi in 1938.

Not that Mirkarimi’s staff isn’t competent, well-trained and doing the best job possible. But nobody can do much in a place like that.

The cells are all in a long line, along a hall. The prisoners look out from behind bars to watch movies on TV. They can’t move around much; there’s nowhere to go.

The infirmary in San Bruno looks like a real hospital. At the Hall of Justice, it’s crammed into a closet. There’s no way to put prisoners in class all day – there just aren’t enough rooms. If you’re in jail and want to visit with your kids, you meet them in a converted bathroom.


 This is a visiting room. Really.

That’s what’s going to be before the supervisors and the voters over the next year or two, as the city decides what to do with roughly 800 cell beds that will be lost when the Hall of Justice – ancient and seismically unsafe – is demolished and rebuilt.

Mirkarimi wants a new jail, smaller than the current one, with much more modern facilities. The ACLU, which is pretty much always right on these issues, is dubious, and so are some of the supervisors. At a hearing a couple of months ago, the supes only narrowly agreed to apply for the state funds needed to begin planning work.

District Attorney George Gascon, oddly, is on their side – he argues that the city doesn’t need a new jail.

I’ve been against every jail-construction plan I’ve ever seen – and still, this one’s  a tough call.

Here’s what it comes down to: We need a new jail to replace the Hall of Justice facility — now, today. Nobody should have to live there. But jails last a long time, and the question we need to face is, will we need that many jail beds in 20 years? In 50 years?

If society hasn’t changed its attitudes toward criminal justice and incarceration half a century from now, it will be an epic social failure. Will it happen sooner? And if it does, what will we do with a fancy new jail?


A lot of progressive criminal-justice leaders were opposed to the plans former Sheriff Michael Hennessey had to tear down the very old, very bad jail in San Bruno years ago and replace it with the modern facility that we now have, mostly because Hennessey insisted on building more cells. In retrospect, he should have asked for a smaller facility or one of the same size, and it would have been hard to be against it. Because in fact, if you’re going to have a jail and lock people up, the new place is a far better alternative, by any standard.

And now all sorts of questions will come up about the need for incarceration, what the alternatives are, how many cells the city really needs (even in this era of realignment, where prisoners are being moved from state prisons to county jails), and whether anyone short of the most heinous violent people should actually be behind bars. All of those are good things to talk about.

In the immediate future, the city can’t decide to stop incarcerating people; that’s done by judges, following laws passed in Sacramento. And for all of Gascon’s pious comments about alternatives, the vast, vast majority of the people in county jail in San Francisco aren’t serving time for a crime; about 70 percent are locked up while awaiting trial, because they were too poor to make bail. They can spend months and months behind bars. And the district attorney’s office isn’t known for proposing, or even accepting, low bail and easy pre-trial release.

We can, as a city and a state, take more steps to find better alternatives to incarceration, and over time, reduce the need for so many cells and so many prisoners. And I hope and believe we will. So it’s an open question how many jail beds San Francisco will need in the next half century.

But it’s an open and shut case that the conditions at the current Hall of Justice jail are so bad that no human beings should be forced to endure them.

There are complicated protocols for where inmates are housed. Maximum-security inmates can’t go to San Bruno, since the cells there aren’t appropriate. Some groups of gang members are put in places where they can be physically segregated from each other. People who have a lot of trial appearances are more likely to be at the Hall of Justice.

But for whatever reason, people who wind up, for whatever reason, in the old, nasty jail on Bryant Street get no classes, no violence-prevention, no Yoga, limited exercise… it’s inexcusable that San Francisco would warehouse people this way.

That’s the side of the debate that sometimes gets lost. Prisoners – people we don’t see, who have no voice, who are overwhelmingly poor and mostly black and Latino – are the ones who have to live with the political decisions city officials make.

Prisoners, that is, and their families.

One of the more troubling problems with having a main county jail in San Bruno is that it’s hard to get to – particularly on public transportation. From my house in Bernal Heights, 511.org shows that a trip to the Sneath Ridge facility costs $9.25, involves three different transit systems and connections (Muni, BART, and Sam Trans) and takes at least an hour and a half, if all the connections are perfect.

In reality, it’s more like a couple of hours.

So the idea of just shutting down and never replacing the jails at the Hall of Justice seems a little unfair to people who want to visit prisoners (and to the prisoners themselves).

There’s also, as Captain Kathy Gorwood, Mirkarimi’s chief deputy, pointed out to me, the issue of actually transporting prisoners. Most people awaiting trial have to be at the Hall of Justice fairly regularly for court appearances – and moving them from San Bruno to San Francisco is expensive and potentially dangerous.

In fact, about the only time that there’s a chance a San Bruno inmate could escape is during transit.

All of which really argues for getting rid of the San Bruno facility and rebuilding a modern jail in downtown San Francisco, with the flexibility to use some part of it for rehab or halfway-house-style facilities as we continue – I hope – as a city to move away from incarceration.

But who’s going to support moving as many as 700 inmates into the heart of the city? And where would we fit them all? Now we’re taking about a really big new jail.

And we just spent hundreds of millions of dollars (that the taxpayers are still paying off) building a modern jail in San Bruno. Imagine the howls about government waste if we just close the doors.


That’s one of the more interesting questions about the whole debate: If San Francisco still needs this many jail beds in 50 years, we as a society will have failed. (If San Francisco becomes a city just for the rich, as is happening, there will be less need for county jail beds anyway, since the crimes rich people commit tend to be federal – money laundering, insider trading, stuff like that.)

So what do you do if you need a new facility now, and it’s a long-term investment, and you can’t lease short-term space because it’s so specialized – and yet you hope and believe that, long before the building’s useful life is over, it will be obsolete?

“That,” Mirkarimi told me, “is a very good and very fair question.”

Can we build a new jail that is designed to become something else down the road? What would that be? Mirkarimi says the San Bruno place could be a work-release facility easily enough, but that’s still a jail.

Could San Francisco build a facility that works today as a humane maximum-security jail with state-of-the-art programs … and include in the plans a transition program to turn it into a mental health, or drug and alcohol, or other sort of rehabilitation place? Do we want a rehab center that used to be a jail?

Nobody has a plan, or a schedule, for transitioning San Francisco away from locking people up as a solution to crime. How long will it take our society to decide that we’d all be better off putting fewer people in cages? How will we get there? And how does a bond act to build a new lockup in central San Francisco fit into all of that?

If we’re going to rebuild the Hall of Justice facility, we need some creative thought. Because I don’t want to pay for a jail unless we all agree that our goal is to put that facility out of business, in our lifetimes. And I’d like to think it’s possible. I’m crazy like that.




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) 48hills.org, follow @supermarke on Twitter.
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  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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