By Jose Bernal
Last week’s unfettered commitment of eight Supervisors to close down the Juvenile Justice Center (JJC) is commendable and truly a monumental first step at achieving real positive transformation. Their bold stance has elevated SF as a leader against youth jails, and will certainly influence other counties to follow suit.
Yet this country is still plagued by the fact that we imprison more people at a higher rate than any other, disproportionately targeting Black and Brown communities. SF is not immune to this plague; on the contrary, our jail system’s racial disparities are even worse than national averages. Increased policing of homelessness, criminalization of quality of life issues and mental health needs, and gang injunctions have led to an again growing jail population that is 52% Black, 40% homeless, and over one-third people with mental health needs. In total, about 85% of the entire adult population in our jail system is in custody awaiting trial—locked up before being convicted because they are too poor to afford bail.
It’s time to shift course. It’s time we close County Jail #4, located in the decrepit and seismically unsafe 850 Bryant St.
As a starting place, we must understand that 25% of those in SF jails are Transitional Aged Youth, meaning young people aged 18-25, who by many accords are mentally, physically, and emotionally more like youth than adults.
I know this first hand: A little under a decade ago, I was one of these incarcerated youth at County Jail #4. Due to my emotional and mental state, most of my time in the SF jail system was spent in an isolation cell, under constant bright lights, behind Plexiglas, and without the basic human decency of privacy. The conditions of confinement and indignation I experienced never helped me in any way. Instead, such conditions only exasperated my desire to end my own life. I am alive today only because my family never gave up on me. Rain or shine, my family would always find a way to come visit me. I now work to heal and empower those that have been most impacted by incarceration.
Closing the controversial 850 Bryant is not farfetched, but long overdue for our collective healing from mass incarceration. City officials have been talking about its closure since 1996. In 2017, city administrator Naomi Kelly announced that the jail must be closed by the end of 2019. Sheriff Hennessey agrees. In fact, nearly every public official in SF has agreed the jail must close. Additionally, grassroots community groups like the No New SF Jail Coalition, which includes Communities United Against Violence, TGI Justice Project, the Coalition on Homelessness, and Critical Resistance, have for years advocated for the jail’s immediate closure and proposed concrete ways to reduce the jail population.
The closure of JJC is not without thoughtful deliberation or planning, as a 12-member working group would decide how to close it by December 2021 and what would follow. Conveniently, we’ve already gone through this process and created a plan for closing 850 Bryant without a new jail (initiated by then President of the Board, London Breed). That workgroup came up with dozens of policy, programmatic, and capital recommendations waiting to be implemented.
For instance, redirecting funding from jails to community resources is not only a sound fiscal investment, it’s a moral investment in human growth and opportunity. The annual cost of jailing one adult in SF is about $94,000; by comparison, mental health treatment at a 6-month residential facility averages at about $21,000 per client. It’s estimated that closing down JJC will save the city $15.15 million. Closing down 850 Bryant would save the city $23.9 million, money better spent on mental health treatment, substance use programs, housing assistance, and workforce development.
We are at a pivotal moment. 850 Bryant and the youth jail are more than just jails; they are symbols of an era of mass incarceration that we must get out of. We can’t erase our history, but we can create our future, and our elected officials have the power to lead us forward. Our real test for transformation away from imprisonment and toward healing is by setting mandates to begin closing jails, starting with 850 Bryant.
Jose Bernal was appointed by the SF Board of Supervisors to the SF Reentry Council, which supports people coming home from prisons and jails. He is also a member of the No New SF Jail Coalition.