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Protesters turn out at hearing for proposed SF jail, force committee to go into recess

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A protester displays a sign opposing the building of a new jail facility in San Francisco, during a budget and finance comittee meeting at San Francisco’s city hall Wednesday, December 2, 2015. (Connor Hunt/Special to the S.F. Examiner)
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Opponents of San Francisco’s new 384-bed jail proposal turned out Wednesday at the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee meeting, launching a protest inside of City Hall’s board chambers.

Chanting “no vote today” and “affordable housing, not jail cells,” about 100 protesters forced the committee to go into recess just before noon. The protest began immediately after the item was called for discussion.

The protesters stayed in the chambers chanting until 1:30 p.m., when the board room was cleared by deputy sheriffs. Four protesters stayed behind chained together through PVC piping, which supervisors said was a first in their memory.

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The Fire Department was called to cut through the tubing and chains. The four protesters were led off in handcuffs by deputy sheriffs.

The meeting resumed shortly after 2:30 p.m. with public commenters kept in an outside room and escorted in three at a time when called by name.

The committee voted at 6 p.m. to send the jail proposal to the full board for a vote on Dec. 15, one week later than was initially expected. Opponents had complained the proposal was being rushed.

Those on both sides of the jail debate agree The City’s existing facilities are in deplorable condition and should shut down. There are 886 beds at the Hall of Justice, known as County Jails No. 3 and No. 4. Currently, only County Jail No. 4 is usable, holding about 400 inmates.

However, opponents say affordable housing and community services are better investments, among other claims. Supporters of the proposal, including Mayor Ed Lee, argue The City will need the additional jail bed capacity.

Adding to the project’s controversy was the issue of when Mayor Lee would sign the election results into law, which he has 10 days to do beginning this Tuesday.

Signing it without delay would ensure District 3 Supervisor–elect Aaron Peskin, a political progressive, could be sworn in before the jail vote, which was initially expected to occur Dec. 8. By moving the vote to Dec. 15, it assures Peskin will be on the board.

Jess Heaney, co–director of Critical Resistance, a group advocating against prisons, said, “We’ve been here for months, actually years, urging you to address and invest in alternatives to caging people.”

“The country is also abuzz with the idea that our largest mental health facilities now are jails, and you are going to build more?” Heaney said. “Do something different. Invest in real health resources.”

Barbara Garcia, director of Department of Public Health, said the department provides $30 million of services in the jail, and that the new facility would provide for improved services.

“Because of all these services that we’ve done keeping people out of jail and getting them back into the community when they leave jail there is only 6 percent of the population in our jail that have severe mental illness,” Garcia said.

District Attorney George Gascon sent a letter to the board opposing the new jail, calling it a “terrible mistake.” Instead, he wants The City to explore alternatives.

“With as many as 40 percent of our in–custody population suffering from some degree of mental illness, it is clear that San Francisco has a mental health treatment problem, not a jail capacity problem,” Gascon said in the letter.

Without the new jail, there would be a maximum of 1,230 total beds in the system. As of Nov. 20, the jail population, which has been in decline, was 1,270, of which 49 percent comprised black people.

Kate Howard, Mayor Lee’s budget director said, “in order for us to not need a jail the population that is currently in jail would have to drop by more than 300 people. It would have to stay there for 40 years. We have never seen that.”

Howard added, “We don’t have another plan. This is our best thinking.”

Supervisor Eric Mar said he opposed the new jail and said The City needs to address the “root causes” not support “a process that is continuing with mass incarceration, especially of African-American and poor people.”

Supervisor Katy Tang, who is supporting the jail, argued that “there is a larger movement behind the arguments” of those opposing the jail, but “some of those arguments really ignore the practical realities if this new facility was not built.”

The jail plan received a boost last month with an announcement by Lee that The City secured an $80 million state grant to build the jail.

The $240 million jail project, planned for next door to the existing facility, increases to $380 million with debt.

On Thursday, the Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight Committee will hold a hearing on alternatives to incarceration.

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