Opinion: Santa Rita is not the solution for housing San Francisco’s jail population

The City must find better ways to close the seismically unsafe County Jail #4

In late February, San Francisco Sheriff Paul Miyamoto proposed transferring up to 100 people to Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail from County Jail #4 at 850 Bryant Street as part of a false solution toward closing the county’s seismically unsafe and life-threatening facility. This proposal was met with clear rejection from advocates and government officials alike, including San Francisco Public Defender Manohar Raju. His many stated reasons included concerns about the particular harms immigrants would endure in the face of such transfers because of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office’s continued collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Stakeholders across county agencies and communities — ranging from those who are currently incarcerated to the Sheriff himself — agree that San Francisco must make good on their 2015 promise to close County Jail #4. The question isn’t if County Jail #4 will be closed, but how?

San Francisco officials know that transferring people to Santa Rita Jail is not a workable solution. In October 2019, I joined hundreds of community members at a San Francisco Board of Supervisors hearing specifically on this topic. I shared testimony — as someone who has visited Santa Rita Jail and as part of the multiracial coalition seeking an independent financial and performance audit of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office — on the myriad deaths and human rights abuses happening at Santa Rita Jail under Sheriff Ahern. I urged the supervisors to consider the health harms any transfers would cause — knowing that while Santa Rita Jail is extreme, it isn’t necessarily a total outlier.

Growing research recognizes that incarceration in any facility — San Francisco, Alameda, or beyond — is a danger to one’s health. The Health Commission of the City and County of San Francisco itself declared incarceration a public health issue last year, emphasizing that “community-based treatment should be the first option to address an individual’s severe behavioral health and/or substance use issues.”

If the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is committed to protecting the health and well-being of all San Franciscans, a diverse coalition of organizations, residents, and community members called the No New SF Jail Coalition has given them a clear and cogent road map to closing County Jail #4 without transferring people or re-opening or building new jails. This includes focusing on community-driven solutions that end pretrial incarceration, address overcriminalization, resist surveillance-based alternatives, and prioritize life-affirming resources, such as housing, employment, community spaces, and health services.

Indeed, as of Jan. 31, there were approximately 985 people incarcerated pretrial in San Francisco and only 288 people in County Jail #4. Decarcerating the pretrial population alone would facilitate County Jail #4’s closure without any transfers or new jail construction — and it would make the county healthier. My own research at Human Impact Partners has outlined six key pathways through which pretrial incarceration and money bail harm health: by disrupting social relationships, by placing people in unhealthy jail environments, and by threatening one’s economic security, steady employment, stable housing, and access to quality healthcare. People are healthier when they’re free, and no county should be in the business of incarcerating people who are legally innocent.

The No New SF Jail Coalition has concrete and reasonable recommendations to close County Jail #4 without causing further harm, which can be summed up in this quote from a person currently incarcerated inside a San Francisco jail: “Why would you build another jail? Why not build more housing and jobs? That will make the community better.”

Amber Akemi Piatt is the Health Instead of Punishment Program Director at Human Impact Partners in Oakland, California and is part of the Audit Ahern Coalition and No New SF Jail Coalition.

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