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San Francisco Officials Wanted to Close A Dilapidated Jail by 2019. So Why Is It Still Open?

Everyone agrees the jail at 850 Bryant should close, but it’s not yet clear what would happen to those locked inside.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón
San Francisco District Attorney George GascónPhoto illustration by Anagraph. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

It’s been three years since the fate of San Francisco’s aging jail at 850 Bryant St. was all but sealed by the city’s Board of Supervisors. The building that houses the jail, known as the Hall of Justice, has been found seismically unsound and is plagued with rodents, asbestos, and seeping sewage. In a unanimous 2015 vote, the supervisors refused to allocate funds to build a new jail on an adjacent lot.

“I am not going to support another stand-alone jail to continue to lock up African Americans and Latinos in this city,” said London Breed, then president of the board and now mayor, at the time of the vote. Instead, the board and District Attorney George Gascón agreed, the funding for the jail should be directed toward diversion and mental health programs to keep people out of jail.

A year later, the city administrator, Naomi Kelly, urged the city to move quickly. She said the building, which also houses courtrooms and the offices of the San Francisco district attorney should be vacated by 2019 because it was dangerous to those who work and are incarcerated there. “At least the [prosecutors] can go home,” she said at the time. “The inmates are there 24-7, and they are locked in.”

Some offices have since left the building. But with 2019 fast approaching, the jail remains open, with several hundred people still trapped inside.

Members of the No New SF Jail Coalition fought for years against the construction of a jail, but they say the options now on the table—including moving prisoners to other jails or building other jail-like facilities—are troubling.

“Reconstruction, renovation, rebuilding, expansion of jailing capacity, extending the lifespan of the jail system—all of those options are, from a community perspective, unviable, and we won’t accept them,” said Lily Fahsi-Haskell, campaign director at Critical Resistance and part of the coalition.

They want to return to the question of what it would take to truly shrink the number of people in the jail and to close it for good, Fahsi-Haskell told The Appeal. “The first step is reducing criminalization and arrest.”  

Shrinking the jail population

The push to close the Hall of Justice intensified in 2017 when city employee labor unions demanded that then-Mayor Ed Lee move employees out of the Hall of Justice. The building “suffers from asbestos, lead paint, pests, rodents, sewage leaks, power outages, flooding, consistently broken elevators,” they wrote, adding that the city had long known the building was seismically unsafe.

Deirdre Hussey, the mayor’s spokeswoman said at the time that Lee believed it was a “moral imperative to remove everyone from the Hall of Justice, including existing inmates.”

In 2016, the Board of Supervisors assembled a work group including Sheriff Vicki Hennessy, Breed, and Public Defender Jeff Adachi plus community based-organizations and coalitions to craft a plan to close the jail and rehouse its roughly 350 current residents. In October, the group made its final presentation to the board’s public safety and neighborhood services committee.

While the county’s [overall] jail numbers have dropped significantly in recent years, and arrests in the city are down, the population at 850 Bryant has remained steady.

To close the jail, the work group found, “the in-custody jail population must be reduced by an average daily population of between 166 to 228 people.” While the county’s [overall] jail numbers have dropped significantly in recent years, and arrests in the city are down, the population at 850 Bryant has remained steady. 

High bail is still keeping hundreds of people in the jail system, according to the work group. Of the 1,329 people in custody in San Francisco jails on one day this August, 319 had bail set higher than $100,000, and of those, 194 had bail set over $500,000. And most people were not even eligible for bail, because they were serving out a sentence, or had other conditions that prevented their release. 

San Francisco’s jails also incarcerate a population that is disproportionately Black—53 percent in a city that is only 6 percent Black.

In October, the San Francisco district attorney’s office received a $2 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation “to enhance in-custody treatment of mental illness, reduce the jail population, reduce recidivism, and to eliminate need for a replacement facility,” said Max Szabo, a spokesman for Gascón. He says the office is aiming for a 16 percent reduction in total jail population. Achieving that, Szabo says, would entail getting those in need of mental health or substance use disorder services into treatment. About 40 percent of those in the system countywide, including at 850 Bryant, have mental health concerns, he said.

Though his office is in the process of moving out of the Hall of Justice, Gascón said he has doubts that the people jailed at 850 Bryant will be moved out by even the end of 2019, though it’s not impossible. “I think it would require aggressive action by the board to clear out the jail,” Gascón told The Appeal. “And it could be done.”

Getting people out is “really doable,” said Fahsi-Haskell, “and there’s multiple ways that could be accomplished very very quickly.” Those include arresting fewer people for crimes of poverty, releasing more people pretrial, or getting more young people out of the system, she said. “A lot of steps could be taken. But there’s a lot of pointed fingers and a lot of passing the buck.”

Finding alternatives

Those who remain in the jail when it officially closes would need to move elsewhere. They could be released into the community with support, an option that advocates back, or moved to other facilities. The city could lease space in the Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, but San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi opposes that plan because it would mean incarcerated people would be much farther from their families and their attorneys. There is also a jail in San Bruno operated by the county of San Francisco, which Sheriff Vicki Hennessy supports expanding, but she says it would require $183 million in renovations and wouldn’t be available until 2023.

Gascón has endorsed a third option: The jail’s residents, or some of them, could be housed in what his office is calling a behavioral health justice center, meant to divert people from the jail by offering them mental health and substance use disorder treatment.

A better option, advocates say, would address the intersections between mental health and criminal justice.

Soon after the supervisors’ vote defeating a new jail, Gascón proposed building such a center as an alternative. Though it met opposition at the time, he said, “I still believe it is the right solution.” Police would apprehend people and take them there, as they would a jail, and they would still face charges. But the proposal advanced by Gascón stresses that the center is not “a ‘mental health jail’” and is intended to be therapeutic.

As it was envisioned, the center is in part a secure facility, and while the treatment services offered are voluntary, advocates say people will feel coerced to accept them if the alternative is jail. “We proposed one with several tiers of services, including a lockdown facility,” said Gascón, noting that it was the locked part of the facility that drew opposition from the community.

“I am willing to perhaps not include that component and include all the others,” Gascón said, “because we need to get this done.”

A better option, advocates say, would address the intersections between mental health and criminal justice without further involving people in the system. Members of the No New SF Jail Coalition support expanding programs like the Progress Foundation, which offers cooperative housing and treatment services in a community setting, to people who have been homeless, incarcerated, or have a history of substance use.

“It’s something the community has already established,” said Suleima Rosales, a member of Critical Resistance. “What would it look like for the board of supervisors to invest in that?”