… But are there really six votes next week for this expensive plan?

Protesters shut down the Budget and Finance Committee meeting for more than an hour
Protesters shut down the Budget and Finance Committee meeting for more than an hour

By Tim Redmond

DECEMBER 2, 2015 – Protesters shut down a meeting of the Board of Supes Budget Committee for more than an hour today and forced a long recess in an effort to delay a vote on building a new jail.

Five people were arrested. Three of them locked themselves together with chains inside plastic sleeves, and the Fire Department rescue squad had to come and cut them loose before sheriff’s deputies could take them into custody.

The raucous demonstration caused the committee chair, Sup. Mark Farrell, to halt public comment and then suspend the meeting while deputies cleared the room and made the arrests.

The protesters were asking that the committee delay any vote on the jail, particularly since another committee, Government Audit and Oversight, will be holding a hearing Dec. 3 on alternatives to incarceration.

But no such luck: The measure advanced to the full board without objection, although Sup. Eric Mar said he intends to vote no next Tuesday.

The protesters filled the chamber early, and raised big banners and began chanting when the item came up. That caused a long, long delay as the chair, Sup. Mark Farrell, sought to figure out how to handle the uprising.

He didn’t try to clear the chamber, and everyone ignored the rules against banners and chanting, although Farrell told me that “at a certain point, the business of the board has to get done.”

Eventually, the meeting was recessed, and most of the protesters left peacefully. But some stayed behind: Katie Loncke, with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Tash Nguyen from the Ella Baker Center, Alicia Bell, Brooke Anderson, and Andre Szeto refused the order to disperse.

Loncke, Nguyen, and Bell were chained together under thick PVC pipe.

Firefighters arrive to cut loose protesters who are chained together
Firefighters arrive to cut loose protesters who are chained together

They were demanding that the vote be delayed, at least until after the supes had a chance to hear about alternatives.

This whole jail project has been put on the fast track the way these things too often happen – a grant application turned into a mandate for approving a very dubious plan without adequate policy review.

But there was a larger issue at play here. At Nguyen told reporters while she was being arrested, “I’ve seen people funneled into the criminal justice system … the city could spend $215 million on community-based solutions.”

Firefighter uses a saw to cut through the PVC pipe
Firefighter uses a saw to cut through the PVC pipe

And that’s actually true. If this were a bond act, the money would be available only for one use – but it’s not. The mayor is asking the board to approve Certificates of Participation, another type of financing that is paid directly out of the General Fund. In other words, the money earmarked for the jail would, indeed, come at the expense of other alternatives.

The deputies at first refused to allow press into the chamber while the arrests were being made, but then I appealed to the chief deputy, Albert Waters, who was friendly and supportive and allowed us to photograph and video the proceeding.

We were also able to interview the five as they were slowly cut free of their chains and taken into custody. All were charged with trespassing; all were set to be cited and released. (I can’t imagine the district attorney, who opposes the new jail, actually filing charges.)

The activists pointed out that this isn’t the first time they’ve tried to derail a new jail – for years, they said, they’ve been organizing, and the city hasn’t listened.

By now, the district attorney, George Gascon, and the public defender, Jeff Adachi, have both said the new jail is a bad idea.

A new jail will be with us for a long, long time – the current facility at the Hall of Justice, which everyone agrees is horrible, was built in 1958 and is still in use. The trends in criminal justice, certainly in San Francisco, are now away from incarceration, and the jail population has been going down.

Right now it’s at the lowest level since 1982.

And 84 percent of the people locked up aren’t convicted of anything – they’re awaiting trial and can’t post bail. Even modest bail reform would radically reduce the size of the population, and the need for a new jail.

Supporters argued that the current facility at the Hall is inhumane (it is), that the building is seismically unsafe (it is) and that the other jail facility, at San Bruno, isn’t set up for maximum-security inmates.

But with $215 million on the line, is it possible that San Bruno could be retrofit for more security?

The other arguments: Keeping inmates far from the courthouse involves a lot of transportation, and that’s where security problems happen. (As far as I know, there have been zero escapes of inmates from the current San Bruno facility during transport to court in years.) It’s hard for families to get to San Bruno to visit prisoners (absolutely true, but again, for $215 million the city could set up a shuttle system).

When it came to the vote, Farrell made an important point: There is no alternative right now. The Mayor’s Office is so determined to move forward with a new jail that there are no contingency plans for what to do with the inmates at the Hall of Justice, which needs to be demolished, if there’s no new jail built.

“This is a numbers game. What’s plan B? What are the implications? The original discussion was to forward this out to next week. Would we be able to maintain the status of the grant if we move this vote out to Dec. 15?”

The answer: No. This has to be done right now, really fast.

Kate Howard, the mayor’s budget director, said that “If we don’t move forward… we will continue to keep people in a seismically unsafe building.”

But that’s exactly the problem with this process. From the start, some supervisors and many criminal justice leaders have said this is a bad idea – but nobody in Mayor Ed Lee’s administration has made any effort to think about other alternatives.

His candidate for sheriff, Vicky Hennessy, backs the new jail. She has been making the rounds to editorial boards to promote is, but even the Chron is dubious.

And there’s a very good chance this won’t get six votes. Several sources told me today that they think the plan is falling short – and that’s before Aaron Peskin, who is more likely to vote against the jail, takes office, which should be at the meeting next week when this comes up.

You can be for or against this plan, but at the very least the city should be offering alternatives – what if we don’t want to spend all this money on a jail? What else could we do? Does it have to be a new jail or nothing? Because that’s the way this fast-track plan has been presented.

As Sup. Eric Mar notes, “I came into this meeting hoping we could continue this item till after the GAO (Government Audit and Oversight?) meeting tomorrow. … We could still use and improve programs to decrease the prison population. This is a critical vote, it’s not just about an $80 million grant. I’m going to be voting no on this” (at the full board).

I suspect others will, too. Maybe even five others. At which point the mayor will have to do what he should have been doing all along. He will have to look at other alternatives.

Sara Bloomberg contributed to this report.