Coalition that stopped new SF jail wins human rights award as jail system blasted by civil grand jury

by Lizzie Buchen, CURB

The No New SF Jail Coalition has been selected to receive the prestigious Hero Award by the San Francisco Human Rights Commission and its Equity Advisory Committee. The coalition celebrated a monumental victory last December, when, after years of community organizing and advocacy, they persuaded the Board of Supervisors to reject plans for a new jail in San Francisco, pointing to the high pre-trial population, extreme levels of homelessness and mental illness among the incarcerated, and egregious racial disparities: While African Americans make up only 4 percent of the City, they constitute nearly half of the people imprisoned in its jails.

Nearly half the prisoners in San Francisco County Jail at 850 Bryant are Black at a time when gentrification, police occupation and absence of economic opportunities has pushed most Blacks out of the City, a disaster reflected in the name of a local Black Lives Matter group, “Last 3 percent.” – Photo: Michael Macor, SF Chronicle
Nearly half the prisoners in San Francisco County Jail at 850 Bryant are Black at a time when gentrification, police occupation and absence of economic opportunities has pushed most Blacks out of the City, a disaster reflected in the name of a local Black Lives Matter group, “Last 3 percent.” – Photo: Michael Macor, SF Chronicle

“This award is a testament to the years of powerful organizing, public education and advocacy by dedicated community leaders fighting for alternatives to imprisonment and policing,” says Lisa Marie Alatorre, human rights organizer for the SF Coalition on Homelessness, “including formerly incarcerated people, labor organizers, and advocates for housing, education, LGBT rights and mental health treatment. Moving forward, we are committed to decarcerating and closing 850 Bryant and building humane and effective community-based solutions.”

The award comes on the heels of a scathing report by San Francisco’s Civil Grand Jury (see below) that details how the jail, particularly the jail at 850 Bryant St., fails people with mental illness. The report documents the high percentage of the jail population with serious mental illness and reports that 31 percent of people imprisoned in San Francisco jail have been homeless within the past year.

The No New SF Jail Coalition condemns the grave human rights abuses of people with mental illness in the San Francisco jail. But they are also concerned with the proposal, noted in the report, to replace the jail with a locked facility known as a “Behavioral Health Justice Center.”

“Jails and policing will never provide solutions to poverty and homelessness nor provide care for people with mental health or substance use needs,” said Lily Fahsi-Haskell of Critical Resistance. “San Francisco must build neighborhood-based care facilities run by the community, not a locked mental health center with heavy law enforcement engagement.”

Members are also troubled by the Grand Jury’s emphasis on investing in jail staffing and procedures, rather than alternatives to incarceration for people with mental illness.

The No New SF Jail Coalition condemns the grave human rights abuses of people with mental illness in the San Francisco jail. They are also concerned with the proposal to replace the jail with a locked facility known as a “Behavioral Health Justice Center.”

“The political move to prioritize staffing, training and services in jail points to the larger shift to make jails seem like they are anything besides cages meant to control and often torture people,” said Coral Feigin, community organizer with the Western Regional Advocacy Project. “The idea that people deemed ‘mentally ill’ by the state can access appropriate and useful care while locked up is absolutely absurd.

“People who struggle with their mental health need health care in their communities, by their communities and with the ability to leave whenever they need to. If you want to do something helpful for people, release them from jail immediately and fund the deeply underfunded non-carceral community-based solutions.”

Several members of the No New SF Jail Coalition are serving on a workgroup to guide the closure of the jail at 850 Bryant St. and are working towards building community-based solutions that do not rely on criminalization or locked facilities. The workgroup will then provide recommendations for consideration as policy objectives by the mayor and the Board of Supervisors in October or November of 2016.

“The current system of criminalization and imprisonment oppresses and endangers our communities,” says Windy Click, an organizer with the California Coalition of Women Prisoners and a member of the city’s Jail Replacement Workgroup, who was incarcerated for 17 years. “Our coalition will continue pushing the city towards decarceration and liberation for all San Francisco residents.”

Several members of the No New SF Jail Coalition are serving on a workgroup to guide the closure of the jail at 850 Bryant St. and are working towards building community-based solutions that do not rely on criminalization or locked facilities.

This year’s Hero Award by the San Francisco Human Rights Coalition honors “Communities Organizing for Justice.” Members of the No New SF Jail Coalition will accept the award at the Hero Awards ceremony on the evening of Thursday, July 28, at 5:30 p.m., at City Hall in San Francisco, in the Board of Supervisors Chambers.

Californians United for a Responsible Budget Statewide Advocacy and Communications Coordinator Lizzie Buchen can be reached at lizzie@curbprisonspending.org, 510-435-1176 or CURB, 1322 Webster St., Unit 210, Oakland, CA 94612.

San Francisco County Jails, a default mental institution in need of attention

The 2016 San Francisco Civil Grand Jury (CGJ) has released a report about the San Francisco County Jails, with emphasis on their role in custodial care of persons with mental illness who have committed crimes.

The report notes that a very high 91.5 percent of the daily inmate population are maximum or medium security and 83 percent of the inmates are unsentenced, i.e. awaiting trial or too poor to post bail. There are 163 beds for psychiatric patients, usually with 50-70 inmates on the waiting list.

To improve the ability of the Sheriff’s Custody Staff and Jail Behavioral Health Services to keep inmates safe from harming themselves and others and to rehabilitate them when possible, the Jury strongly recommends staffing Jail Behavioral Health Services 24/7 and training all personnel who regularly interact with inmates in crisis intervention and suicide prevention.

Particularly around the time of custody transfer, they urge improved communication between the Sheriff’s Department and arresting officers as well as with family and friends. The Jury suggests that the Sheriff’s Department work with SF Open Data to provide data about jail population demographics and outcome performance measures on the Open Data SF website.

Following up on a 2013-14 Civil Grand Jury report that found extensive use of overtime in the Sheriff’s Department, the Jury recommends that the Department put high priority on filling existing vacancies by redoubling recruitment efforts, as well as identify positions that might be re-classified as administrative support. To expand development opportunities and avoid cliques, the Jury suggests a mandatory rotation policy along with increased participation in assignments outside the jail such as the precinct transfer unit, work orders with city departments, and other opportunities as negotiated between the sheriff and police chief.

To enable both increased training and expanded development opportunities, they urge use of a part time pool of retired or extra-help deputies to backfill absences due to short term illness, professional development and vacation time.

The report cites several review articles that address the complicated issue of incarceration of the mentally ill. It concludes that as long as the jails in San Francisco continue to serve as the place for treatment of individuals who commit violent crimes while experiencing mental health crises, there is a need for more behavioral health services in our jails and for discharge and reentry planning that is coordinated with the requisite community mental health services. The San Francisco Mental Health Board and National Alliance for the Mentally Ill are also valuable resources.

The 2015/2016 San Francisco Civil Grand Jury conducted its investigation through interviews with Sheriff’s Department officials, custody staff, medical providers and inmates. They met with people at non-profit organizations working on criminal justice and mental health issues. They reviewed academic research and media reports pertaining to custody operations and mental health and suicide prevention. The public may view their report here and other Civil Grand Jury the reports online at http://civilgrandjury.sfgov.org/.