By Paul Miyamoto
Three weeks ago, two people booked into San Francisco county jail within days of each other tested positive for COVID-19. Since the shelter in place order went into effect, many feared that the introduction of COVID-19 into the incarcerated population would lead to an outbreak in the jails.
Except that it didn’t.
Given what we know about the lightning-fast spread of COVID-19, how did the virus fail to take hold among the rest of the city’s jail population?
Two words: social distancing.
In late February 2020, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office developed a COVID-19 emergency response and action plan that would consider any and all ways to keep the people in our custody safe while protecting the public’s safety.
We collaborated with our longstanding partners at the Department of Public Health who manage our Jail Health Services. By March 9, we began implementing social distancing protocols across three jails and our intake and release center when the jail population stood at 1,110. It was not easy and we continued to evaluate and adjust our response.
The Sheriff’s Office worked with the Superior Court, District Attorney and Public Defender to identify people with less than 60 days left on their sentences who could be released early in an effort to lower the jail population. The courts accelerated their efforts to lower jail counts across the state by setting bail statewide at $0 for specified misdemeanors and low-level felonies. Throughout this process, the Sheriff’s Office worked with the courts and our community partners to identify housing for early releases who did not have a location to shelter in place.
Today, our jail count stands at 707, and social distancing in San Francisco’s jails is a lot easier to accommodate than it was on March 1. Sustaining this effort requires that we maintain enough secure space in the jails to provide for changes in the population count.
Supervisor Sandra Fewer has introduced legislation that would direct the Sheriff’s Office to close County Jail #4 by November 1, 2020. Six supervisors have signed on to the legislation. The low jail count, a direct result of the global pandemic, is their justification for moving up the date of closure from July 2021. The Sheriff’s Office committed to the latter date after working with the community and the Mayor’s Office for several years on a responsible plan to safely close County Jail #4.
Make no mistake: if the legislation passes as is, it will jeopardize social distancing in the jails and increase the incarcerated population and staff exposure to COVID-19, potentially threatening people’s lives. As Dr. Donald Burke, professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health said in the New York Times on April 23, 2020: “When you take away social distancing, everything will go right through the roof.”
There are voices in this debate who are determined to use the COVID-19 emergency to close County Jail #4 now — regardless of the risk to victims, public safety and public health. I am grateful that Supervisor Fewer is working with the Sheriff’s Office on changes to the legislation that ensure we will have flexibility to accommodate capacity needs should the population count change in six months. As elected officials, it is our responsibility to listen to everyone and make thoughtful and measured decisions and plans.
Before the global pandemic set in, San Francisco already had one of the lowest incarceration rates in the nation. The decision to reduce the jail population further has broadened the conditions under which people may be released and requires us to maintain a delicate balance between public safety and public health. Supervisor Fewer and I both want this to be responsible legislation.
Should the Supervisors adopt this legislation without the proposed changes, more defendants with serious and violent histories and arrests would be released to the community. There simply isn’t enough collective space in County Jails #2 and #5 to maintain physical distance among the people who are housed there. The balance would be tipped and public safety and public health most certainly compromised.
Paul Miyamoto was elected as San Francisco county sheriff in November of 2019.