The real costs of jails

In a state that ranks fifth in the country for imprisonment, San Francisco has seen its jail population dramatically plummet. There are approximately 1,000 vacant beds in San Francisco’s jail system. This accomplishment is due to many of The City’s nationally recognized diversion and educational programs. So how should we celebrate the fact that San Francisco is finding ways to keep more humans out of cages? Apparently, by building more cages.

The City of San Francisco is moving ahead with plans to build a new $380 million jail, introducing legislation on Nov. 17 that seeks final approval from the Board of Supervisors in early December. No one debates that the old jail at 850 Bryant St. is seismically unsafe and needs to come down. No matter where you sit on law-and-order issues, the price tag should alarm anyone with a basic understanding of math. Board President London Breed said in a recent report, “It just doesn’t sit well with me, period — the need to build a new jail. It’s a lot of money.”

The City plans to finance $215 million for the new jail through a Certificate of Participation, a device intended to eliminate citizen oversight in public finance. Under a COP, Wall Street pays for the construction of new public buildings, and The City essentially leases the buildings from the investors. When interest is factored in, the total costs come out at around $600 million. The City pays about $63,000 a year for each prisoner, or about $135 a night.

Saying “yes” to a new jail means saying “no” to a long list of resources that San Francisco needs, such as better Muni, improved schools and affordable housing.

Just up the street from the jail, Mercy Housing opened the Westbook Plaza, providing 49 permanently affordable homes and a new health clinic in the middle of a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. For the price of the new jail, about 10 Westbrook Plazas could be built.

As communities successfully create alternatives like affordable housing and health care facilities, elected officials remain steadfast in pursuing costly and ineffective solutions to mental health issues. In the race up to the Nov. 3 election, Sheriff-elect Vicki Hennessy told KPFA listeners that “we need a mental health facility that’s working with programming for people with mental health and co-existing substance abuse problems.”

This despite the fact that healthcare professionals who specialize in mental health care have repeatedly stated that a jail environment is literally the worst place to treat people with mental health issues, as imprisonment actually worsens mental health problems.

Meanwhile, leaders and communities nationally are crying out for the need to reduce jail and prison populations through bail reform, pre-trial diversion programs and expanded re-entry services. A jail is no substitute for an affordable home, living-wage income and clinical or medical treatment.

But the real costs of increased imprisonment go beyond the financial bottom line. Recent high-profile cases, such as racist texting and gladiator fights in county jails, would make television’s top bad cop Vic Mackey blush.

The real scandals, however, rarely makes the headlines.

According to the W. Hayward Burns Institute, black people are 7.1 times more likely to be arrested than white people for similar crimes. The average stay in jail varies greatly by race.

According to a 2012 study, black people who are arrested stay in jail about two weeks longer than their white counterparts. Predictions point to a decline in The City’s black population reaching as low as 4 percent and yet, shamefully, black people comprise more than half of San Francisco’s jail population.

On Dec. 2, the Board of Supervisors will vote to approve Mayor Ed Lee’s legislation in accepting $80 million of state money, as well as the $215 million in COP, for the proposed jail. Community members and organizations with the No New SF Jail Coalition will be there to demand the obvious: San Francisco doesn’t need another jail, we need alternatives and community resources that bring our city real strength and safety.

James Tracy is a Bay Area native and the author of “Dispatches Against Displacement: Field Notes From San Francisco’s Housing Wars.”

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