SF Supervisors split over controversial jail plan, communities demand alternatives to imprisonment

by Mohamed Shehk, No New SF Jail Coalition

San Francisco – On Tuesday, Nov. 17, members of the No SF Jail Coalition mobilized against a controversial jail construction plan at the Board of Supervisors meeting, where legislation regarding the plan was introduced. The continuing pressure and testimony from community groups has compelled the board to seriously consider the harmful impacts of imprisonment on marginalized communities in San Francisco and to question whether a new jail is even necessary.

What good to his family, community and society is a man holding prison bars who would much rather be earning a living and raising his children? And why are Blacks, who comprise only 3.9 percent of the San Francisco population a whopping 56 percent of the SF County Jail population? – Photo: Michael Macor, San Francisco Chronicle
What good to his family, community and society is a man holding prison bars who would much rather be earning a living and raising his children? And why are Blacks, who comprise only 3.9 percent of the San Francisco population a whopping 56 percent of the SF County Jail population? – Photo: Michael Macor, San Francisco Chronicle

The proposed maximum security jail is being touted as a “mental health facility,” a label that has spurred intense criticism from community members, mental health advocates and city officials alike. “Across the U.S., county jails are being used as warehouses for people with mental health issues, and San Francisco is no exception,” says Andrea Salinas, a clinical social worker in San Francisco and a member of the No New SF Jail Coalition.

“Imprisonment actually creates and worsens mental illness. If San Francisco wanted to address mental health concerns, it would be investing in community based care and diverting people out of jail and into those resources.” Currently, over a third of people inside San Francisco jails have mental health issues and, according to the Department of Public Health, at least 14 percent of prisoners deal with significant problems.

“Across the U.S., county jails are being used as warehouses for people with mental health issues, and San Francisco is no exception,” says Andrea Salinas, a clinical social worker in San Francisco and a member of the No New SF Jail Coalition.

Dispelling the notion that the new jail will be better for prisoners, Jeff Walker, currently held at SF County Jail No. 2, says: “The conditions at the jail cause more psychological problems, resulting in people losing their jobs and housing, which affects them reentering society. Because the jail system is fundamentally flawed, more programs should be geared towards mental health services and hospitals in the community rather than trying to fix jails.”

The No New SF Jail Coalition has also dispelled claims of funding. Those supporting the jail are pointing to the $80 million awarded to the county earlier this month for the construction of the jail, which they argue would help offset the total $256 million needed. However, community advocates as well as state officials have made clear that the funding, which is authorized under state legislation SB 863, is not “free money,” but simply a loan that would ultimately be repaid at the expense of local taxpayers.

“Imprisonment actually creates and worsens mental illness. If San Francisco wanted to address mental health concerns, it would be investing in community based care and diverting people out of jail and into those resources.”

“The state is incentivizing jail construction across the state, and San Francisco has fallen into this trap. Debt payments over the years will cost taxpayers $600 million for this harmful project,” says Andrew Szeto, of Critical Resistance Oakland. “Imagine what we could do for affordable housing with a fraction of that money, particularly at a time when SF is facing arguably the worst housing crisis in its history.”

Mohamed Shehk, media and communications director for Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization working to abolish the prison industrial complex, is a spokesperson for the No New SF Jail Coalition. He can be reached at Critical Resistance, 1904 Franklin St., Suite 504, Oakland, CA 94612, 510-444-0484 or mohamed@criticalresistance.org.