By Linh Nguyen
SAN FRANCISCO — Legislation introduced by Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer to the Board of Supervisors will close County Jail 4, a maximum-security facility, by November 21.
County Jail 4 is one of the maximum-security facilities in San Francisco, accommodating 385 incarcerees. For decades, it has known to be a public health risk with various issues. These issues include seismic unsafeness, sewage that occasionally backs up into sleeping areas, and people crammed together in small cells. These concerns are especially dangerous in light of the COVID-19 pandemic when it is not possible to practice social distancing and safe “sheltering-in-place” in these conditions. Multiple incarcerees share one toilet, one sink, and sleep on shared bunk beds. Manohar Raju notes that, while congregate living spaces in jails raise concerns during the pandemic, County Jail 4 has “always been by far the worst.”
Public Defender Raju has been collaborating with Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer and her office and community partners for months on the legislation to close County Jail 4. This legislation will require the city to close the facility within six months. The originally scheduled deadline for the facility’s decommission was July 2021, a decree issued by Mayor London Breed.
“It is important to develop a plan that is responsible, collaborative and in the interest of public safety,” said Fewer, who said that the incarcerated people at County Jail 4 “are living in deplorable conditions, for which there has been legal action taken against the City.”
The plan calls for expanding pretrial diversion programs and other efforts to reduce the jail system’s population and eliminating delays in processing cases that keep people in the jails longer than necessary, including eliminating cash bail.
“My office will continue to work to improve conditions inside the jails, while also fighting for people to be released,” said Raju. “The most effective way to protect people from COVID-19 continues to be releasing them from jail and allowing them to safely isolate.”
Thus far in San Francisco, the jail population has been reduced to 40 percent below the average daily population.
“This is an opportune time to evaluate measures being taken and apply best practices for the jail closure plan,” said Fewer. “In the interest of public health and public safety, the time is now to plan for the closure of County Jail 4.”
Because of a decline in crime rates and arrests in San Francisco, Raju does not believe there is a need to replace County Jail 4.
“I also want to make clear that there has been a steady decline in crime, arrests, and jail bookings in San Francisco even before the pandemic began,” said Raju. “Because of our low levels of crime, and the shrinking jail population, I am confident that we can close this jail without investing in building another jail or sending people out of the county.”
District Attorney Chesa Boudin also supported the move.
In a statement released by his office he offered his enthusiastic support for the closure by November.
“Sandra Lee Fewer’s new legislation to close County Jail Number 4 by November of this year. There is consensus among our public safety partners that the closure of CJ 4 is imperative: it is seismically unsafe,” he said reminding the public that as a candidate for DA, he had promised to close the jail. “I would like to thank Supervisor Fewer for taking this bold step to create concrete deadlines for the closure of this unsafe facility.”
Boudin added, “I also promised to safely reduce San Francisco’s jail population. We have already done that, as we have listened to public health recommendations and have already reduced the jail population to protect from the spread of COVID-19. Efforts by my office have reduced San Francisco’s jail population by approximately 40 percent—all while crime rates have fallen.”
He believes that they can “do more to reduce the City’s over-reliance on incarceration,” adding, “We cannot do this properly without robust community supports – particularly housing, treatment, and other pretrial services – to provide resources for those coming out of jail to make sure they can succeed. We must also ensure that we are offering parallel services for crime victims.
“In order to continue our work on reducing the jail population, we need to invest in the support networks that help prevent recidivism. Closing Cj-4, along with our work already to reduce the jail population, will allow us to save tax dollars and reinvest our savings into supporting our most vulnerable residents,” Boudin said.
In 2015, the Board of Supervisors rejected a plan to build a new jail to replace County Jail 4 and retransfer its incarcerees, citing the same issues of infrastructure.
“What keeps me awake at night is County Jail No. 4,” said Sheriff Vicki Hennessy to the members of the Board of Supervisors in 2018. “Jails are part of what we as a city are responsible for, and County Jail No. 4 is an embarrassment — it’s an embarrassment to the city.”
At the time in 2018, the options regarding the fate of the incarcerees in County Jail 4 were to leave them there or to transfer them to Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, both being undesirable options. Transferring incarcerees into another county would separate them from their legal counsel and families.
“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 lens,” said Raju. “I believe that now, more than ever, we have both the responsibility and the opportunity to reexamine our response to harm and the needs of our community with more dignity and care.”
Boudin added, “San Francisco is a national model for criminal justice innovation and ending mass incarceration. I am pleased that Sup. Fewer’s legislation continues to push us forward towards reducing our incarceration rates and keeping us all safe.”
On Apr. 14, 2020, the legislation to accelerate the decommissioning of County Jail 4 was introduced to the Board of Supervisors at their meeting. The outcome of the meeting regarding the legislation has not been made publicly available yet.
David Greenwald contributed to this report.
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