By Melissa Hernandez
San Francisco County Jail 4, located at 850 Bryant Street, has been slated for demolition since it was declared seismically unsafe in 1996. Twenty-four years later, 850 Bryant continues its legacy as the hub for San Francisco’s criminal justice system, doubling up as a real-life horror show for everyone who must step foot within its walls. Prisoners, visitors, and employees alike have reported rat and roach infestations, asbestos exposure, and a range of sewage and plumbing-related turmoil that could not be a better metaphor for the prison industrial complex if it tried. It goes without saying that each day that passes without permanently closing County Jail 4 only increases the danger of an avoidable catastrophe—especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has already found its way into County Jail 4.
The decrepit building gives Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle a run for its money, but despite its disturbing and unsafe state, our city has dragged its feet when it comes to shutting it down. Even now, when our City is seeing a historically low number of people being held in San Francisco’s jails, Sheriff Paul Miyamoto has continued stalling the closure of County Jail 4. Rather than working to get as many people out of 850 Bryant, Sheriff Miyamoto went as far as publicly threatening to send people to the notoriously dangerous Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County in February of this year. His plan would have also unnecessarily delayed the closure of County Jail 4 until July 2021.
However, on Tuesday, April 14, our City finally took the first step toward closing 850 Bryant when Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer introduced an ordinance that will finally shut down 850 Bryant for good. If passed, the ordinance will not only prevent Sheriff Miyamoto from transferring incarcerated people to Santa Rita Jail, but will require the city to develop a plan to reduce its jail population to fewer than 1044 people total, prevent the City from funding construction of a new jail, and prohibit the city from increasing existing jails’ maximum capacity. Thankfully, the ordinance also will not allow the City to decrease the jail population by turning people’s homes into jails through electronic monitoring shackles.
The No New San Francisco Jail Coalition, which worked with Supervisor Fewer to craft the ordinance, wholeheartedly supports Supervisor Fewer and her co-sponsors, Supervisors Shamann Walton, Hillary Ronen, and Matt Haney, as well as Supervisors Dean Preston, Gordon Mar, and Aaron Peskin, who have also pledged their vote. Given the already low number of people in San Francisco’s jails—722 as of this past Friday—we are hopeful that the remaining Supervisors can join their colleagues to end two decades of inaction. Beyond 850 Bryant itself, there is much at stake in closing it for our city.
Shuttering County Jail 4 presents a unique opportunity for all of San Francisco to reevaluate the use of incarceration and the role of our criminal justice system. If we want things to change, we must start to divest from the imprisonment system and other oppressive, costly, and punitive systems.
With the widespread consensus from health experts that prisons and jails will serve as incubators for the spread of COVID-19, San Francisco has reduced its jail population by over one third since an emergency was declared. Meanwhile, crime rates in the city have continued to drop.
These developments lay bare claims that community members and anti-imprisonment advocates have been challenging for years: first, that reducing the jail population isn’t as easy it sounds. And second, that locking people up is what keeps our communities safe. Both arguments lie at the foundation of our society’s system of mass incarceration, and both are increasingly being exposed as untrue.
If the current COVID-19 crisis has taught us anything, it’s that building up healthcare and housing for all community members—and not our jails—should have been our top priorities all along. Luckily, closing County Jail 4 will free up considerable economic resources to the tune of nearly $25 million. As our City leaves behind this decrepit remnant of the past, it has an opportunity to reinvest those resources into care, not cages, by funding preventative services such as mental health services, residential treatment, housing, free city college, and job training, and alternatives to incarceration such as transformative and restorative justice programs as suggested by the Work Group to Re-envision the Jail Replacement Project in 2017. We have already started building the infrastructure to end mass incarceration in San Francisco. All we need now is the courage to rise to the occasion to close County Jail 4 and end our reliance on putting people in cages, once and for all.
Melissa Hernandez is a member of the No New SF Jail Coalition.