Closure close for notorious ‘850,’ SF County Jail

The Board of Supervisors decision to close 850 Bryant’s County Jail 4 is the culmination of years of widespread organizing, involving prison reformists and abolitionists of many stripes, begun more than six years ago with the No New Jails campaign led by Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB). Despite the difficulty of celebrating anything during the pandemic, this is a historic victory!

by Chelsea Boilard 

San Francisco – The legislation to close County Jail 4, known in the communities most of the prisoners come from as “850,” co-sponsored by eight members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, moved unanimously out of committee with positive recommendation and was approved 10-1 by the full board. 

Supervisor Fewer had introduced amendments that aimed to resolve issues raised by Sheriff Miyamoto and others, including language that addresses the need for public health measures and physical distancing due to COVID-19.

“I am proud of the collaborative work we have done with the sheriff, district attorney, public defender, jail health, pretrial services, labor unions and community advocates,” said Supervisor Fewer. “This legislation is responsible while increasing the urgency of the need to close this decrepit and crumbling facility for the incarcerated people and workers inside.”

Over 20 years ago, the Hall of Justice was deemed to be seismically unsafe and slated for demolition, and since then the conditions have continued to worsen. The plumbing, sewage, kitchen and laundry facilities are all in disrepair. 

There are reports of asbestos, lead, rodents and raw sewage leakage impacting the health of both incarcerated people and employees. The Department of Public Works, Department of Real Estate and independent seismic engineers have all determined that the Hall of Justice building needs to be decommissioned due to seismic and other safety concerns – and every City leader has publicly agreed.

The sole No vote was cast by Supervisor Catherine Stefani, “who represents the city’s affluent neighborhoods of Pacific Heights and the Marina District,” according to Courthouse News. “She argued reduced jail capacity could make the city less safe.”

“The COVID-19 crisis has shined a light on just how important it is for us to be looking at all of our systems, including our public safety systems, through a public health lens,” said Public Defender Mano Raju. “County Jail 4 has been a known public health risk for decades: People are crammed together in tiny cells and sewage sometimes backs up into sleeping areas. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has raised these urgent concerns to an emergency level. Social distancing and safe ‘sheltering-in-place’ is impossible in conditions where multiple strangers must share one toilet, one sink and sleep on shared bunk beds. All congregate living spaces within the jails raise deep concerns during this pandemic, but County Jail 4 has always been by far the worst.”

The COVID-19 crisis has only exacerbated the existing health and safety concerns at this facility, where social distancing is essentially impossible, increasing the urgency of the closure.

“Instead of putting people in cages, we should be addressing . . .poverty, homelessness, and mental health and substance use disorders”

“With the COVID-19 pandemic, the health risks at County Jail 4 are exacerbated even further,” said Dr. Juliana Morris, a UCSF attending physician. “The ability to shelter in place safely is an impossibility. People are held in shared cells, with one toilet per cell. 

“Most people inside have not been tested so it’s impossible to know who is contagious or who needs to be monitored for complications of infection. It’s a ticking time bomb. Nationally, more than 100 people incarcerated in jail and prison have already died from COVID-19.”

The legislation requires closure of County Jail 4 by Nov. 1 and a reduction in the jail population to be sustained under 90 percent of the capacity at the remaining jail facilities in order to do so. As of this morning, the jail population was at 696 across all three jail facilities, totaling 60 percent of the capacity in the remaining two jail facilities (County Jails 2 and 5).

The legislation also details measures and strategies that the City’s justice agencies must consider in order to reduce the jail population, including more resources for mental health, housing, case management and pretrial release programs.

“Closing County Jail 4 is an important step, but reducing San Francisco’s jail population is not enough. In order to ensure real public safety, we have to ensure that blanket services are provided to lessen the chance of recidivism and allow us to redirect precious public safety resources into victim supports and alternatives to incarceration,” said San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. 

“The closure CJ 4 presents San Francisco with an opportunity to lead a deep structural change toward a justice system that values healing over retribution.”

“Instead of putting people in cages, we should be addressing the underlying social, economic and health problems that lead to incarceration in the first place, such as poverty, homelessness, and mental health and substance use disorders,” said Alexi Jones, of the Prison Policy Institute.

The eight cosponsors are Supervisors Fewer, Haney, Walton, Ronen, Preston, Mar, Peskin and Safai. Each member of the Government Audit and Oversight Committee (Mar, Peskin and Haney is a cosponsor of the legislation – and they each spoke in support of the goal to urgently close this facility. The public also spoke strongly in support, including speakers who have personal experience with the facility.

“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.”

Chelsea Boilard can be reached at chelsea.boilard@sfgov.org. This story has been updated by Bay View staff.