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News + Politics Supes move forward with jail that we might not...

Supes move forward with jail that we might not need


$240 million project that nobody has seen and that might be obsolete the day it opens gets preliminary approval from board members who say they don’t like it. Go figure

The old county jail has to go -- but do we need to replace it?
The old county jail has to go — but do we need to replace it?

By Tim Redmond

JULY 21, 2015 – The San Francisco supervisors today moved forward a proposal for a new $240 million county jail – although it’s not clear yet what the project will actually look like or whether the city needs it.

The convoluted issue stems from the fact that the state is offering up to $80 million in grant funding to replace the ancient, outmoded, unsafe, and inhumane lockup at 850 Bryant – but the clock is ticking and the money may be gone if the city doesn’t act soon.

So the supes had to vote today to approve an environmental review document that said the project needs no further review – unusual for a building this large – and at the same time vote to authorize the city to apply for the grant money.

The debate was at times bizarre – as Sup. Jane Kim put it, “I’m not sure we even have a project before us.” But on a 7-3 vote, move forward they did.

It’s not a simple issue: I’ve been to the County Jail in the Hall of Justice, and it’s just awful. The prisoners can’t stay there anyway; the place isn’t seismically safe and has to be torn down.

But the jail population is dropping, SF is getting better at alternatives to incarceration … and foes of the jail say it might be possible to handle the projected number of inmates without building some 350 more beds.

The sheriff, Ross Mirkarimi, who initially supported the new jail, now says that if the city put more money into mental-health treatment facilities, we wouldn’t need to build more cells.

Mayor Ed Lee is adamant about pushing this project.

There were two essential items before the board. First the supes had to approve the Planning Department’s “negative declaration” – a statement that a multistory edifice could not possible have an impact on the environment.

That’s a stretch, since nobody has actually seen architectural renderings or project plans. Even a spokesman for the Department of Public Works noted, “we do not have a formal project to present.”

So how can the board say it doesn’t need an environmental impact report? Kim was dubious: “How did Planning make an evaluation [under the California Environmental Quality Act] if the project is still in flux? …. It’s unprecedented and premature.”

But planners said they had enough of an idea to say it needs no EIR.

That got mixed up with the bigger question: Does the city even need a new jail? Many of the people who testified against approving the environmental review were actually arguing that San Francisco shouldn’t be in the business of finding ways to lock more people up, when it’s clear that the mass-incarceration model of criminal justice has been largely a failure.

The majority of the people now in county custody have been convicted of nothing – they are simply awaiting trial and can’t afford bail.

Again, the numbers are complicated. San Francisco actually has several jails: JC1, at the 850 Bryant Hall of Justice, is just an intake and release facility with holding cells but no beds. CJ 2, also at the Hall, is a relatively new facility with modern equipment, and is the only place where women are held; it can handle 464  inmates.

CJ 3, which could handle 426 inmates, and CJ 4, which houses up to 402, are very old-fashioned lockups with prisoners in barred cells in a long row. Visiting facilities are awful, there is limited room for classes, and nobody should ever have to live there. CJ3 is now closed.

CJ 5 is the new San Bruno facility, with room for 768 inmates. It’s modern, offers classrooms and recreation, and is one of the more chill (and progressive) jails you’ll ever see.

CJ 6, an empty concrete hulk in San Bruno, could be rehabbed for $80 million and could house another 250 people.

The current jail population is about 1,250.

So when you do the math, as Sup. Scott Wiener did, here’s what you get: We could demolish CJ3 and CJ 4 and not replace them, and we’d have room for about 1,300 inmates, roughly the current population. If we fixed up CJ 6, we’d be close to 1,500.

The Sheriff’s Office, however, says we need to be at no more than 85 percent capacity to have the flexibility to keep certain inmates apart (you don’t put competing gang members in the same cell). And the inmates at CJ4 are maximum-security prisoners who need special facilities. So Wiener argued that we need the new space just to keep up.

“The political thing to do is not to build a new jail,” he said. “There is no constituency that wants a new jail. But if we don’t do this we could wind up with overcrowding, or we could be forced to release people we don’t want to release.”

On the other hand, the trends are pretty clear: The population of the SF jail is falling. It might well be that in three or four years, when this project is shovel-ready, we won’t need that many beds.

And, as Mirkarimi says, we might come to our senses and start treating mental illness as a public health issue and not a criminal issue.

At any rate, the city is pretty close to where it might be creating unnecessary jail cells – and $240 million for a new jail that might be obsolete the day it opens is a big gamble with a lot of money.

And there’s a sense of the money pressure here: City officials repeatedly said that if the supes didn’t approve the CEQA review, and didn’t give their blessing to the preliminary project, the $80 million state grant would be in jeopardy.

Of course, the supes were told, this is just the beginning, and the project can be altered or even scrapped later. I have heard this many times before – and preliminary approvals tend to turn into final approvals. Can you see the board turning down $80 million (some of which might have already been spent) a few years from now?

Even the people who voted in favor of approving the environmental review and proceeding with the grant application agreed the project isn’t good. “I don’t like this plan, it’s too big and too expensive,” Sup. London Breed said. “There are not enough mental-health resources. I feel like this process is death by 1,000 cuts. And if we get the grant, we’ll be told we can’t stop it because we’ll lose $80 million.”

And yet, she voted to go ahead. So did everyone except Kim and Sups. Eric Mar and John Avalos (Sup. David Campos was out of town).

So now this project moves to the next level. I wonder at what point it becomes unstoppable.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.


  1. It is not really possible even at this advanced stage of genetic testing to isolate genetic vs environmental factors for a propensity toward a certain behavior ie violence. For example, African Americans have a higher incidence of heart disease and hypertension than other ethnic minorities in this country. But among Africans who spend their lives in Africa heart disease and hypertension are almost unheard of.

  2. All human beings have a propensity for violence. Most of human history has been spent in a struggle to survive against the odds. Human beings and their predecessors spent most of their time defending themselves from predators. But if you look at the last thousand years there have been much more violent and bloody wars in Europe and the Middle East than Africa.

  3. Why would anyone rule out a priori any reason unless they had an ideological bias?

    Are you a geneticist?

  4. No, Greg asked if genetics was the reason and I said I didn’t know if it was or whether it was some other factor

  5. A few anecdotes do not refute FBI crime stats. I never said that whites commit zero crimes. In fact I didn’t say anything about whites at all.

    Black-on-white violent crime happens at 40 times the rate of white-on-black violent crime

  6. The last several mass murders in this country were committed by white men including yesterday’s shooting in Louisiana. Think about the shootings in Newtown Connecticut, the Colorado movie theatre and the South Carolina church shooting as well as the Boston marathon massacre. Kind of blows your theory of Africans being more genetically predisposed to violence out the window

  7. No, you’re right, central lock-up is in the same building as the courts, to enable prisoners to be conveyed too and from the courts via the back passages, so they dont need to be bussed back and forth.

    If you sit in the criminal courts you can see them being herded by SFSD along corridors behind the courtrooms. Makes it much easier all round.

    I guess after conviction they go to San Bruno, unless they get more than a year in which case it is off to the state pens, which make the county jail look and feel like a holiday camp

  8. Different demographic groups commit crime and violence at different rates. I doubt even you seriously deny that. Certainly the black community doesn’t deny that (to take your interesting example).

    Genetic? I’m no expert. Much of Africa has high crime so there may be, if not genetic, then certainly cultural reasons for that. You’d have to ask a scientist.

    But whatever convenient reason you wish to conjure up why Americans commit more crime, which mostly suit your ideology I notice, in the end they do commit those crimes. and so we lock them up. The voters have repeatedly expressed that desire. Why do you hate your fellow Americans and voters?

  9. You mean black people are violent? That’s what you really mean, isn’t it? Why not come right out and espouse your racialist theories openly?

    Even if it were true that Americans are the most violent and criminal people in the western world, you have to think about why that is. Is it something in the water? Is it something in our genetic makeup? Maybe you think so, since you seem to be prone to racialist explanations of crime. But I disagree. People are people. These “well-known demographic groups,” which you euphemistically talk about, are present in other countries too. And yet, other societies have managed to bring down the crime rate somehow, so why haven’t we?

    Gee, maybe it’s our gaping inequality, easy access to guns, culture of violent militarism, and insane approach to drug use. Perhaps it’s time to look at what other countries have done with their societies and try to copy models that seem to produce less crime. Cultures that deal with these things differently seem to have better outcomes in terms of crime, regardless of demographics. Hmmm… we’ve tried everything else.

  10. My Bad. I just assumed the jail on 7th street was the same as the Hall of Justice. I’ve only ever been on the jury duty side of things over there.

  11. Neither.

    That money went to the facilities on 7th St (jails 1 & 2) and the new San Bruno jail. It’s been over 50 years since the Hall of Justice lockups opened, and it’s time to replace that structure.

  12. I suspect that Americans are probably the most violent and criminal people in the western world. There may well be more violence in South Africa, Russia, Somalia etc.

    It’s not ALL Americans of course but rather a few well-defined and well-known demographic groups.

    As for locking up criminals, the voters have invariably voted for more punishment and more incarceration when they have been asked, e.g. the three strikes strategy. So maybe you should blame the voters for the lock-up rate – you know, your fellow Americans who you love so much?

  13. We lock up more people per capita than *any* other nation -peaceful ones, crime-ridden ones, democracies, dictatorships. We’re #1 among all of them. Compared to most developed democracies, we lock up about 5-10 times as many.

    Now I’ve been accused by some on the right of being anti-American. But the level of anti-Americanism that you’ve just expressed, is something that is unmatched by anything I’ve ever heard on the left.

    Because in order to believe that the incarceration rate that we see in America is just and fair, you have to believe, as you have just succinctly stated, that Americans are THE most violent, THE most criminal, THE most evil people in the entire world. I’m sorry, but I refuse to believe that.

  14. We lock up more people than other nations because we have more crimes and criminals than other nations

  15. This issue IS a bit confusing. Are they saying we need to spend $250m for 350 beds, when we could just spend $80m for 250 beds?

    I’m turning away more and more from Big Govmint’s “helpful subsidies”, like this $80m from the State. If we hadn’t had the Feds give us (low hundreds-million-$$ for the Central Subway, then would we really have spent $1.X00m on the ‘tunnel to nowhere’? I don’t think so! This Fed or CA money has a way of making us do things that aren’t really in anyones best interest (except maybe for those who get to spend it, and the friends they spend it on).

  16. There are many ways of dealing with people who commit minor offenses without just “letting them go”. Electronic monitoring can be highly effective. So can requiring people to report regularly to court appointed monitors for counseling/rehabilitation services.
    The truly dangerous people who are a threat to society are not the majority of people in American prisons. The American prison population is largely either borderline mentally ill people, or people who are too poor to post bail and get forgotten.
    Either way it is very expensive to keep someone in jail – over $100,000 per year as a cost to taxpayers and it is a dehumanizing and debilitating way to treat people, some of whom do have some chance at rehabilitation.

  17. Not really. But considering what America’s per capita lockup rate is, even that is a better alternative than what we’re doing.

  18. “SF is getting better at alternatives to incarceration”

    That alternative being just letting people go.

  19. Didn’t we spend millions rebuilding the jail after the earthquake? I remember being told at the time that the money was “worth it” because the needed improvements would make the jail safe for the “next big one”. Was the City lying then or are they lying now?

  20. It’s not clear to me how the jail’s population can be declining given that it is now official state policy to move more and more prisoners from state facilities to county jails.

    Presumably that is why the city is getting this money from the state in the first place, as part of a block grant to we can house more state prisoners?

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