The widely celebrated closure of San Francisco’s decrepit Hall of Justice jail has created a new hurdle for the doctor in charge of keeping inmates healthy: The City is running out of space to prevent a coronavirus outbreak behind bars.
A steady rise in the inmate population in the weeks after San Francisco lost some 400 jail beds by shuttering County Jail No. 4 in early September has made it “increasingly difficult to keep COVID infections at bay,” said Dr. Lisa Pratt, the director of the Department of Public Health’s Jail Health Services.
The closure left Pratt without “nearly enough” cells to isolate inmates who may become COVID-19 positive and also reduced the space available at the Hall of Justice for holding inmates ahead of court hearings, meaning that inmates who would otherwise be in different housing clusters are mixed together.
“This is how an outbreak begins in a correctional setting,” Pratt wrote in an Oct. 14 letter to criminal justice leaders. After successfully pushing for the jail population to drop below 800 when the pandemic began, Pratt is now calling for another 25 percent reduction to 600 inmates in light of the recent closure.
“We have much less space to safely hold or house incarcerated people and the jail census is showing a clear and worrisome upward trend,” Pratt said Tuesday in an email to the San Francisco Examiner. “The confluence of these factors are cause for great concern.”
San Francisco has thus far succeeded where others have failed in preventing a COVID-19 outbreak behind bars. While more than 2,200 cases and 28 deaths have been reported among inmates at San Quentin State Prison, Sheriff’s Department records show there have been just 69 in-custody cases in The City in the seven months since the pandemic began.
City officials managed to reduce the jail count from around 1,200 at the beginning of the year by 40 percent to a low of 738 in August through various efforts including fewer bookings by police and agreements between prosecutors and defense attorneys for certain inmates to be released early.
The Board of Supervisors seized on the declining count in May to speed up the long-awaited closure of County Jail No. 4, passing an ordinance that required Sheriff Paul Miyamoto to close the seismically unsafe facility by November. Miyamoto later joined Mayor London Breed in agreeing to close the jail in September — even sooner than required.
For Miyamoto, the inmate population has already dipped low enough to “keep those in jail safe.” Still, he said his department is working to keep the population low through electronic monitoring and other alternatives to incarceration.
“In San Francisco, the courts ensure only the most serious or violent arrestees remain in jail,” Miyamoto said. “We are committed to keeping justice-involved people safe from COVID-19 while protecting public safety.”
Others said the count needs to fall further.
“We have to defer to Dr. Pratt’s medical and public health expertise and experience as to the number of people the jail can safely house,” said Danielle Harris, a managing attorney at the Public Defender’s Office. “The Public Defender’s Office is working on many fronts aimed at reducing the jail population.”
Pratt sent her letter on Oct. 14 when the jail count reached 835 inmates — its highest point since April 1, she said. Sheriff records show the count has since dropped back down to 779 as of Tuesday.
But Pratt was concerned that the colder weather and holidays will soon bring more COVID-19 cases. She also worried that more inmates would be held in custody longer with hearings delayed for court holidays.
Pratt proposed the use of video court appearances and attorneys conferences “where possible” to prevent inmates from mixing in holding cells. On Tuesday, she said the court is “moving to require more video visits.”
She also called for the various criminal justice leaders to “move quickly and creatively to continue to divert people from jail and decrease their length of stay.”
District Attorney Chesa Boudin said his office is now working with the Sheriff’s Department to speed up the release process for those who are not being charged with a crime.
“Previously someone in jail whose case our office had decided to discharge would nonetheless often have to wait to be released until the next business day as paperwork was being processed,” Boudin said. “Because of this partnership, our office is able to directly alert the Sheriff’s Department to release someone immediately when we know a case will not be filed.”
Boudin said he hopes “streamlining this process will help keep our jail population numbers down and will protect the people who live and work in the jail from the risk of the virus’s spread.”
Pratt attributed the recent jump in the jail count to an increase in bookings and transfers from other jails and prisons that were previously put on hold.
Also in June, the state Judicial Council rescinded an emergency order that reduced bail to $0 for people accused of misdemeanors and low-level felonies, meaning that some who would otherwise be quickly released are held longer.
Pratt, Boudin, Public Defender Manohar Raju, Pretrial Diversion Project CEO David Mauroff and the Bar Association of San Francisco have all called on the San Francisco Superior Court to restore the “zero bail” measure.
Currently, the court follows new protocols outlined for releasing individuals based on risk rather than money bail under a ruling from a federal judge last year.
Another effort to reduce the jail count is from the Adult Probation Department, Pretrial Diversion and others to provide housing for homeless people released from jail at some 50 hotel rooms.
Mauroff said Pretrial Diversion has been working around the clock to “expedite releases and protect public safety” during the pandemic.
Chief Adult Probation Officer Karen Fletcher said to further reduce the count, “we need to continue to examine racial disparities and better understand the potential policies and practices that hold a person in custody.”