Press Release

Press Release: Fewer Asks for Jail Closure Citing COVID-19 Concerns

***PRESS RELEASE***

Supervisor Fewer Announces Legislation to Urgently Require the Closure of County Jail 4 inside the Hall of Justice

Existing Health and Safety Concerns in the Jail Compounded by COVID-19 Pandemic

Supervisor Fewer is announcing today legislation that will require the City to close County Jail 4 within six months, and a deadline for reduction of the jail population in order to safely close the jail while preventing transfers out of county to facilities like Santa Rita Jail. Supervisors Walton, Haney and Ronen have signaled their support.

There are currently three facilities in the county jail system, outside of the booking facility: County Jail 2 on Seventh Street; County Jail 4 at 850 Bryant St.; and County Jail 5 in San Bruno. The closure of County Jail 4 – a step that every elected official in San Francisco agrees is necessary, including the mayor, sheriff, district attorney and public defender – will leave the system with a capacity of 1,160.

In 2018, the City of San Francisco received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge iniative, to commit to reduction of the jail population, and the Working Group that convened as a result includes the district attorney’s office, the public defender’s office, the Sheriff’s Department, the Adult Probation Department, the Reentry Council, and others. Together the Safety and Justice Challenge Work Group set a goal of reducing the jail population to no more than 1,044 (90% of the capacity of the jail system, without County Jail 4). Supervisor Fewer’s legislation echoes this goal, on an aggressive timeline.

“I refuse to accept the idea that San Francisco would transfer people out of county to facilities that not only present logistical challenges but are a risk to the health and safety of those detained,” said Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer. “I refuse to accept it when we have people sitting in jail because of bureaucratic delays or because treatment beds are not available. We absolutely can accomplish this goal with all of the justice partners at the table investing in strategies collaboratively. That’s what this legislation is about.”

San Francisco’s jail population has consistently been declining for months, reaching a low of 1,065 on March 13 (prior to the City’s shelter-in-place order that was released just three days later). Since the shelter-in-place order was released in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the jail population has further – and dramatically – declined, reaching 944 on March 23. Jails are a high risk for the spread of a disease like coronavirus, given the communal living in very close quarters, making social distancing incredibly difficult.

“In this time of crisis, San Francisco needs all public safety partners to be flexible and creative as we carry out the pursuit of justice and protect all of the vulnerable people that we serve — victims, those who live and work in our county jail system, and the community at large,” said District Attorney Chesa Boudin. “Now, more than ever, we need to safely reduce the jail population. We have reduced the population to historic lows and do not need to rely on the unsanitary and seismically unsafe County Jail 4 to house people, it is a danger to all of us. The public safety measures we are engaging in to reduce the jail population are an integral part of the public health response to COVID-19 and serve as an example of what we need to do to keep community safe and maintain public safety.”

Jails across the country are expediting releases of individuals deemed not a threat to public safety in order to reduce the numbers of people detained and prevent major contamination within the City’s justice system and jail facilities. On March 22, it was reported that a deputy sheriff stationed at County Jail 4 tested positive for COVID-19, triggering concerns across the system about the risks for spread of the virus.

But the concerns about County Jail 4 date back much farther. In January 2017, a backup in the sewage system at the Hall of Justice led to raw sewage flooding jail cells, triggering a lawsuit from incarcerated people. The building, constructed in 1958, is deemed to be “an embarrassment” according to former Sheriff Vicki Hennessy, not to mention seismically unsafe and the City has made plans for an administrative exit of all city departments by July 2021.

“This public health crisis is exposing what we have been saying for years– County Jail 4 is an extremely unsafe and unsanitary facility and needs to be closed as soon as possible,” said Public Defender Mano Raju. “This is a jail where sewage has backed up into sleeping areas, and where up to 12 men are crammed together in tiny cells packed with bunk beds. I am in full support of the Board of Supervisors legislation to close the jail, and only wish that it had been closed sooner.”

Concerns about this facility have been amplified by City leaders, incarcerated people and community advocates alike. Incarcerated people have reported unbearable conditions in County Jail 4 and across the system, citing a range of issues from lack of medical care to the sanitation of facilities. And with a large number of incarcerated people who are homeless and marginally housed, and suffering from mental health or substance use challenges, the jail and justice systems has not been designed or equipped to meet the needs of this population or support them upon release, leading to recidivism and a cycling in and out of the jails.

“Incarceration is itself a harm,” said Alex Bindfled. “Regardless of the nature of incidents that have led people to become incarcerated, jails and prisons are perhaps the worst manner of addressing those incidents.  Evidence shows us that incarcerating people increases the likelihood of recidivism and leads to alarmingly disparate mental health outcomes.  By punishing people through locking up, we do not resolve the harm, but instead perpetuate it.”

“The focus right now is about saving lives in the face of a pandemic, and so there is immediate urgency to reduce the jail population,” said Jose Bernal, who is formerly incarcerated, a member of the Reentry Council, and the Organizing Manager at Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “But there have been safety and health concerns for a long long time at County Jail 4. As someone who served time there, I know firsthand.”

 


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