Members of the No New Jail Coalition attending the hearing called for the closure of the jail by July 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

City struggles to find alternatives for inmates in seismically unsafe jail

Mayor London Breed has given City Hall a deadline to close down the Hall of Justice jail by July 2021, but the move has only reinvigorated a debate on where to put the roughly 300 inmates it currently houses.

At a Board of Supervisors hearing Friday there was widespread agreement that County Jail #4 is seismically unsafe and should be closed.

Supervisor Matt Haney and members of the No New Jail Coalition said that they want the jail shuttered much earlier, in fact, by as soon as July 2020.

But Haney, who called for Friday’s hearing before the Board of Supervisors Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, said he also doesn’t want to build any new jail beds.

Nor does he want to see The City send inmates to the Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, an idea outgoing Sheriff Vicki Hennessy has also rejected. Doing so would further separate inmates from their legal counsel and families and prevent them from participating in new programs Breed has announced for the jails, like free phone calls and the ability to purchase items from the commissary without exorbitant fees.

Instead, Haney and other supervisors said they want The City to intensify its commitment to alternatives to incarceration.

“There is a lot that we could do if we actually commit to getting this done by reducing the population,” Haney said. “I do not support sending folks to Alameda County. I don’t support building a new jail. I do support a plan for us to move forward and close this facility as soon as possible in an effective way.”

Supervisor Sandra Fewer, who serves as the board’s budget chair, said she is “looking to identify strategies to further reduce the jail population” and wants to “to avoid a scenario where we have to send any people to Santa Rita or jails out of the county.”

The City has already begun moving other city departments out of the Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant St. into leased space elsewhere. In announcing her deadline to move the inmates Thursday, Breed said if the population doesn’t decline enough by the time the jail closes, she may have to send inmates “to an alternative facility on a temporary basis.”

Hennessy has maintained that further reductions to the jail population will be difficult to achieve, and a new jail facility or renovations to an existing unused jail in San Bruno is needed to house inmates.

“I haven’t had any traction,” Hennessy said. “Obviously there’s not much of an appetite to build a new facility, even though people are living in that horrible facility.”

From left: San Francisco Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Paul Miyamoto, Assistant Sheriff Katherine Johnson, Undersheriff Matthew Freeman and Sheriff Vicki Hennessy listen to a hearing on closing County Jail 4 and the Hall of Justice building at 850 Bryant St. during a meeting of the BOS Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

In 2015, The Board of Supervisors rejected a proposal to rebuild a new replacement jail next to the Hall of Justice and called for The City to focus on programs to lower the overall jail population instead. That included establishing a Work Group to Re-envision the Jail Replacement Project, which issued recommendations in 2017.

District Attorney George Gascon’s Office was also awarded a $2 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation, with a goal of addressing racial disparities in the jails and reducing the inmate population to 1,044 within two years. The work under the grant continues.

“This is going to take a lot of small, different interventions in order to safely reduce the jail population,” said Tara Anderson, director of policy with the District Attorney’s Office.

Without County Jail #4, the jail system includes a total of 1,238 useable beds that “can only accommodate an average daily population of 1,064 to 1,126,” according to the Work Group to Re-envision the Jail Replacement Project.

The average daily jail population last fiscal year was 1,322 inmates, according to the City Controller’s Office. In September the average daily jail population was 1,284.

Haney asked Hennessy how the mayor’s plan would be implemented.

“If the Hall of Justice is closed and we still have the count where it is now, then we are going to have to have some place for people to go,” Hennessy said.

Hennessy said she had “preliminary discussions with the mayor, who mentioned she was headed in that direction, and then the announcement came yesterday.”

Haney asked Hennessy if Breed was aware inmates would be transferred to the Alameda jail.

“I believe that she knows that that is the most likely alternative, because there are no others that I am aware of,” Hennessy said. She added that such a plan would likely require a contract and approval by the board.

Members of the No New Jail Coalition attending the hearing called for the closure of the jail by July 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Haney said he was “concerned about a lack of a plan” following Breed’s announcement. “Without having a plan, my fear is that the result of that is trying to back us into something that we should not be doing. The Sheriff herself said that it would be horrible for us to send people over to Alameda County. Then why are we considering that? Why are we acting as though that is a viable option in any way?”

The Sheriff’s Department maintains four county jails. Three are in San Francisco: County Jails #1 and #2 at 425 7th St., and County Jail #4 at the Hall of Justice. The fourth is County Jail #5, which is located in San Bruno. County Jail #1 is an intake and release facility that does not provide housing for incarcerated individuals.

In 2018, 10,920 individuals were booked into San Francisco’s jails. But some were repeat offenders and the total bookings were 17,688 bookings, of which 77 percent were the result of San Francisco police officers’ arrests. Of the total individuals, 3,261 were booked more than once, ranging from 2 to 19 bookings, according to a budget analyst report on the costs and operations at County Jail #4.

The average cost per incarcerated individual in San Francisco jail facilities is $250.11 per day. The cost to operate County Jail #4 this fiscal year is $24.7 million.

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(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

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