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News + PoliticsThe new jail is on the fast track

The new jail is on the fast track

Board decision is imminent — although it’s not even clear that this $240 million project is needed. 


By Tim Redmond

DECEMBER 1, 2015 – The Mayor’s Office is asking the supervisors to approve on a very fast track a plan for a $240 million new jail that may be far bigger than the city needs – if San Francisco even needs a new jail.

A measure that would close the purchase of a site by February 2016 and start construction shortly after that appears on the agenda of the Budget and Finance Committee Wednesday/2.

The supes agreed earlier this year, some of them reluctantly, to apply for $80 million in state money for the jail – but it was clear at the time that no decision had been made on whether to move forward and that the city might not need or accept the money.

But on Nov. 13, San Francisco officials were informed that the grant was approved, and since then, this thing has been moving forward quickly.

The mayor wants the board to approve a plan that would allow the city’s Real Estate Department to buy four parcels near the current Hall of Justice “for fair market value” without coming back for approval from the supervisors.

That’s because the city, under the terms of the state grant, has to finalize a deal for the jail site within 90 days after the grant was issued. A report by the Budget Analyst’s Office quotes city officials as saying there won’t be time to negotiate and close the deal by February if it has to come back to the board for approval.

The jail – described in official documents as a “rehabilitation detention facility” – will include 384 beds. The existing jail facility, which is part of the seismically unstable Hall of Justice, would be demolished – and good riddance: The ancient jail is inhumane.

But the Controller’s Office has estimated that the city might need as few as 120 new beds, since the Sheriff’s Office and the courts have been working on alternatives to incarceration.

As many as 75 percent of the current inmates are behind bars entirely because they can’t afford bail. Many others have mental-health issues.

Bail reform and better mental-health services might make a new jail entirely unnecessary – and with better policies, it’s hard to argue that the city will need this many jail beds in the future.

And we are talking about a long-term project here, one that with interest will cost the taxpayers more than $300 million. Is it really a good idea to plan for a future where San Francisco will be locking up as many people as it does right now? Isn’t it possible that we will come to our senses over the next 30 years, and that much of this fancy facility will be empty?

Never mind: The committee is set to vote on a plan to authorize the sale of $215 million worth of “certificates of participation” – a way of raising money by selling the equivalent of bonds without a vote of the people – and the full board could wind up approving this next Monday.

When you add in the state grant and factor in interest payments, the nut for the new facility is $240 million.

The Youth Commission asked that the hearing be held later in the day, when young people could show up and testify. That was denied.

Opponents of the jail point out:

It is critically important that the Board postpones this vote. Supervisors [Jane] Kim and [London] Breed have requested a special hearing on alternatives to jail construction. Supervisor [David] Campos has requested a budget and legislative analyst report comparing costs of providing mental health services in the community vs. inside the jail. Lastly, law firm Equal Justice Under the Law has filed a federal lawsuit against the City and County to dismantle San Francisco’s money bail system, which could dramatically reduce the number of people incarcerated pre-trial.

I don’t think the city’s had a serious discussion at any point on whether this entire project is a good idea. But that’s the way these things work.

First, the city applies for a state grant – promising the supes that submitting the application is in no way a final decision, that agreeing just to ask for the money doesn’t mean we are going to move forward with the project.

Then the state says yes – but insists that the project move forward really fast. And now the supes are told to get on the stick, stop wasting time with the larger questions, and say Yes – or lose $80 million.

And suddenly a decision that was at best very tentative is almost a done deal.

Building an expensive new jail is a big decision, not just financially but as a matter of criminal justice policy. Is mass incarceration going to be part of our future as a city? Is there a better use for that money (which will come out of the General Fund)?

You can’t really turn a jail into much else without spending a whole lot more money. What if this is all a big mistake?

The problem is that none of those questions are on the agenda for the meeting. It’s all about approving the COPs and the budget. It’s all about the state money (that the supes weren’t even sure they wanted) getting used as an excuse to force the city to move way faster than it should.

I guess I should have seen this coming. So many major decisions get made this way. But it’s still a bit of a shock.

The meeting starts at 10am in the Board of Supervisors chamber. A protest will follow on the steps of City Hall.

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.
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  1. Tim Redmond is so out of touch with this subject and clearly has not toured the facility lately. Overflowed jail toilets are leaking through ceiling panels, the building will not survive an 8.0 earthquake, it has NO Transgender jail section to keep those individuals safe. Most importantly the facility is unable to house the emergency staff needed to deal with an ISIS Terrorist attack in San Francisco. It’s time for an international city jail facility in SF. Oh but wait Tim still thinks we are living in 1971 trying the catch the Zodiak killer…It’s true LSD kills brain cells.

  2. Tolerance and respect for diversity have nothing to do with it. The KKK could disappear tomorrow and I would rejoice. What this is about is my respect for the first amendment’s guarantee of free expression.

  3. No right is inviolate. You cannot exercize your free speech rights in many public places. Try yelling in a library or speaking out of turn in a courtroom.

    But if you are comfortable with KKK rallies then I cannot fault your liberal values of tolerance and respect for diversity.

  4. No, of course I wouldn’t want klansmen arrested for participating in a peaceful protest. Remember when the Nazis marched in Skokie, Ill? They were defended by the ACLU. The right to protest is inviolate.

    In practice, I suspect most protests take place without permits. Police recognize they are better off controlling the crowd to maintain peace and protect property than arresting nonviolent protesters.

  5. You need a permit to have a march or rally on the city streets and public places, unless it is a gathering of a fairly small number of people – I don’t know the exact number offhand. Same way you need a permit for various other bill of rights freedoms like having a gun.

    Even non-political parades need a permit, as does any use of a loudspeaker or entertainment.

    That is not to say that everyone in a non-permitted march would be arrested but, at least in theory, they could be. Or the organizers could be.

    In practice it is the behavior on that protest that typically leads to arrests, sometimes hundreds, whom central booking needs to process, and for whom jail space has to found until either dismissal, OR release, bail or conviction.

    The laws about arrest and conviction are the same for all races so I am not sure of the relevance. What if the KKK are marching to protest black crime? Might you want them arrested and booked?

  6. I’m having trouble with these concepts of “illegal protests” and “licensed protests.” I’ve participated in plenty of protests and it never crossed my mind that they were “illegal” and I was never arrested for participating.

    The idea of a “licensed protest” is crazy. What city authorities are going to license a protest against Ed Lee’s housing policies? Even the idea of licensing is a first amendment violation.

    And yes, race has everything to do with it. Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ arrest for refusing to give up a seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus, sparking a citywide bus boycott. It was a protest and a seminal movement in the civil rights movement. Black Lives Matter protests continue today.

    Your ideas about “illegal protests” and “licensed protests sound like the right wing authoritarian tactics that you decry in some of your posts above.

  7. I don’t really do popular culture. Are they like the Stasi or the KGB from regimes that you deem more benign and ideologically evolved?

  8. The situations that typically lead to a spike in arrests are illegal protests and demonstrations, or licensed protests where the demonstrators behave illegally.

    Race has nothing to do with it.

  9. Unless you actually need to do research, or obtain primary materials rather than just read the latest NY Times best seller. Then you realize how much isn’t online, and how much is no longer accessible to the public.

    Basics are no longer easily accessible, because instead, we have a sunlit reading room for current issues of New Yorker, and People, and museum displays of special collection items. Do you realize how much of the special collection holdings are never catalogued at all? Private collations like the KQED archives over at State are not fully accessible to professionals or the public….but they’re putting up random clips online, so the average person wouldn’t know or care. What’s going on is a complete disregard to scholarship, and there’s no outrage because people like yourself just discount the entire concept of why we even need libraries.

  10. A “spike in arrests due to civil disobedience and such like”? Could you explain what you mean? Are you talking about protest marches or black people refusing to go to the back of the bus?

  11. Libraries exist more and more as internet service providers these days. Does it make any sense to build libraries as we did before we had the Internet?

  12. We built a library with less books, of course it’s political if they’re building less beds and less offices. That or incompetence. I’d guess a little of both were involved in accepting the plan but mostly they’re creating reasons to flex some eminent domain, develop and cash grab.

  13. If progressives in SF took the housing supply shortage seriously, they would have more clout and credibility when it came to issues like this one.

    I think this jail is a ridiculous behemoth of a project and totally unnecessary. But because SF progressives have lost credibility on housing issues, a lot of people aren’t listening to progressives or remain skeptical of what they say. That bodes poorly for the future of this city, as corporate interests will be able to do whatever they want.

  14. A jail that is too small is a lot more serious than one with some un-occupied beds. And the new jail needs to be designed for worst-case scenarios where, for instance, there is a spike in arrests due to civil disobedience and such like.

    As for the sheriff’s “alternatives to incarceration” I doubt they are very popular with the victims of crime. And of course we have a new sheriff who appears to have different ideas from the hopelessly liberal Mirk.

    Better to build big in any city with an increasing population

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