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News + PoliticsCrimeSF's new War on Drugs has created dangerous, intolerable conditions in the...

SF’s new War on Drugs has created dangerous, intolerable conditions in the county jail

Many predicted that this would happen—but the Mayor's Office had no plan.

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The population of the San Francisco jail is up by 36 percent over a year ago.

The number of deputies on duty to handle those inmates is down from 298 to 285.

The inmates in the jail are increasingly people with severe substance abuse and mental health issues.

The situation has become so dire that deputy sheriffs have been attacked repeatedly, and twice the jail has been forced to go on lockdown. MissionLocal reports that inmates are saying they would rather be in state prison than the county jail.

In the past year, the mayor, the police chief, the sheriff, and the district attorney have launched a new War on Drugs in the Tenderloin, arresting by the mayor’s own account, in a celebratory press release, more than 700 people for the crime of simple drug use.

Sheriff Miyamoto is facing a crisis that is the direct result of the mayor’s new War on Drugs

That, several supervisors said Tuesday, is not a coincidence.

“This is a grave situation that was entirely foreseeable,” Sup. Hillary Ronen said at a Committee of the Whole hearing on the issue. “The minute the new War on Drugs was announced, we knew that this effort was going to lead to a much larger jail population with serious health issues. We knew Jail Heath Services couldn’t handle this level of sickness. We knew we had a budget crisis.”

She asked Sheriff Paul Miyamoto, who was part of those discussions: “What was the plan?”

The answer: There wasn’t one.

Miyamoto said he asked Mayor London Breed for a sobering center or another public-health based place outside of the jail where people arrested for drug use could go. “We’ve gotten rid of those options,” he said.

Instead, people are forced to detox, without medical care, behind bars. People with mental health issues are locked up, and at times locked down for a week or more, without adequate treatment.

“We get all these press releases,” Ronen said, “but it doesn’t say that they people arrested are going to an overcrowded jail where they are locked down and beating the crap out of our city employees. This is an outrage.”

A Dec. 19, 2023 press release from Breed’s office notes that police had “Arrested nearly 700 people for drug sales [and] arrested nearly 800 people for public drug use.”

That’s more people arrested and charged with the crime of public intoxication that arrested on charges of selling drugs.

From the release:

“We are bringing together local, state, and federal law enforcement to coordinate and hold those breaking the law in our city accountable,” said Mayor London Breed.

More:

“Together, we see the collaborative efforts of all our agencies yield transformative, tangible results for public safety,” said Sheriff Paul Miyamoto. “While we prioritize getting people the help and services they need, those who continue to repeat criminal behavior will end up in custody. Arrest levels and our jail population have increased now that people face multiple court cases, and are held to answer on charges of repeat behaviors. A proactive and impactful approach to law enforcement focusing on specific bad actors and our continued presence in the community will be an ongoing commitment.”

Nobody from the mayor’s senior staff was on hand to answer questions. Neither was the district attorney or the police chief.

But Terry Wiley, director of the independent Office of the Inspector General for the Sheriff’s Department, provided some details from his research.

“You find a large number of inmates that are detoxing, mentally ill, or mentally unstable among the general population,” he told the supes.

He said that District Attorney Brooke Jenkins “has a greater focus on holding individuals in custody that previously were released.”

The crisis in the jails has become intolerable for both deputies and inmates, testimony showed.

Angela Chan, assistant chief attorney in the Public Defender’s Office, said that the jail is so crowded, and the staffing so short, that some of her office’s clients can’t get access to their lawyers—and in some cases, can’t get transportation to court for hearings.

Meanwhile, Miyamoto has sent some of his deputies, including people who otherwise might be working in the jail, into the Tenderloin to arrest drug users.

“Drug arrests are the highest they have been in a decade,” Chan said.

Sup. Aaron Peskin said it was ironic that at a time when staff in the jails are so low that conditions are dangerous, Miyamoto’s deputies are out in the Tenderloin helping arrest people for drug use—who are adding to the crisis in the jail population.

“It’s not clear to me that we should be putting drug users in jail,” Peskin said. “It makes we wonder whether we should be getting those people into treatment.”

Peskin also suggested that the deputies who are out in the field making arrests should be assigned back to the jail, where conditions are so dire. Miyamoto acknowledged that putting his staff on patrol was his decision, and the one team of eight deputies at a time was assigned to help with drug arrests in the Tenderloin.

Sup. Dean Preston asked Miyamoto how many people are currently in county jail on charges of drug use. “This is intentionally obscure,” he said. “The people of San Francisco are not on board” with arresting drug users who have committed no other crime.

Miyamoto said he didn’t have that data, but would get back to the supes.

Meanwhile: As Ronen said, none of this should be a surprise. When the jail is understaffed (and Breed has asked the sheriff to cut his budget by 10 percent this year) but city leaders are intent on locking up drug users … it’s going to create a serious problem.

And other than MissionLocal, nobody in the news media seems to be making those connections.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
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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