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.
TALE OF THREE JAILS
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?
POOR PEOPLE CAN’T MAKE BAIL
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.
A JAIL-FREE FUTURE?
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.