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What will it take to get inmates out of San Francisco's aging Hall of Justice?

San Francisco Sheriff Department
San Francisco inmates cleaning a sewage flood inside the Hall of Justice jail


Since the early 1960s, a big chunk of San Francisco’s criminal justice system has been living inside the Hall of Justice. With its faulty elevators and occasional flooding, the building already has a bad reputation for employees who work there.


Then there are the people who have no choice but to live there.


Like the rest of the building, the jail on the top floor is seismically unsafe, and it’s known for wandering rats behind the walls, peeling old paint, and rusted out plumbing.


But in 2015, the City’s Board of Supervisors voted against funding areplacement jail, forcing the sheriff to reject $80 million in state cash that would have gone towards building a better facility.


Instead, activists and city officials have been working towards reducing the jail population. But tearing down the cycle of mass incarceration isn’t happening overnight, and the inmates already in the system still need a decent place to live.


San Francisco’s oldest working jail


Inside this hulk of a building on Bryant Street in the South of Market neighborhood, people are paying traffic tickets, showing up for jury duty, and testifying in courtrooms.


But this past January, rotten-smelling water and fecal matter began seeping into prosecutor's’ offices on the third floor and dripping into the domestic violence unit below.


After plumbers fixed the flooding issues in the District Attorney’s office, the toilets started clogging upstairs in the seventh floor jail, where roughly 350 of the city’s inmates live.


One inmate, who we’re calling Chris to protect his identity, remembers when the DA’s office flooded.  


“I said, ‘Yes!’” he says with a laugh. “I mean, I thought that was the best thing that could have ever happened. But seriously, I didn’t know it was going to affect us.”


Once the toilets in the jail started leaking, he was less thrilled. He says some inmates have put blankets on the ground, bracing themselves.


“Just the thought of getting feces on you...just imagine, the thought of you being asleep at 3 in the morning, and you hear boop, boop, boop,” he says. “That happens all the time, this is regular.”


Plumbers now stop by the jail every day to try and prevent any flooding. But raw sewage isn’t the only issue here. Because of jail’s long corridors, sheriff deputies can't see some inmates until they open the cell doors. And there’s almost no room for rehabilitative or recreational programs - mostly just TVs, paperback books, and religious services. Anytime Sheriff Vicki Hennessy walks through this jail, she gets depressed.


"I'm the sheriff. I'm supposed to keep people safe. I'm suppose to run a humane jail that's going to ensure people's constitutional rights,” Hennessy says. “It's a challenge for us to do that everyday at that jail.”


The No New Jail Coalition fights back


Shortly after the sewage ordeal in the District Attorney’s office, the city administrator announced she wanted most of the Hall of Justice shut by 2019. But no one is sure how to do that, or what that means for the inmates who live there.  


Back in 2015, when the Board of Supervisors was deciding whether or not to accept $80 million dollars to build a new replacement jail, protesters packed city hall. The Board voted unanimously against building a new jail, led by Board President London Breed, who said that the problem with the jail in the Hall of Justice is bigger than the plumbing.


“On any given afternoon, many of the inmates are sleeping in their bunks,” Breed said. “Why? Because there is nothing else for them to do. 850 Bryant needs to come down. But more than a building, we need to tear down the system of mass incarceration it represents.”


San Francisco’s jail population did shrink by roughly 40% from 2008 to 2016.  But some of the data is still grim. More than a third of the city’s inmates areidentified as having mental health needs. Breed’s own brother spent years at the jail inside the Hall of Justice.


“My brother had a drug problem. He needed treatment, not to be locked up,” Breed said. “I am not going to support continuing to lock up people who have mental illnesses and need treatment, not imprisonment.”


Breaking the cycle of mass incarceration


After the new jail funding was rejected, a working group launched to start brainstorming ways to shrink the city’s jail population.


“We want to make incarceration a public issue,” says Roma Guy, a community activist with Taxpayers for Improving Public Safety, who is co-chairing the working group. The Sheriff and Director of Public Health are also co-chairing the group.


One idea proposed by some members of the working group is to reduce or eliminate money bail. 85 percent of inmates in San Francisco’s jails, for example, haven’t even been convicted yet.


“Poor people can’t afford to pay a $10,000 bail or $1,000 bail, so they spend time in jail,” Guy says.


Some of the working group’s other ideas include providing housing for homeless people leaving jail, referring more people to treatment instead of incarceration, and building more hospital beds.


“This is something we care about, and we want it done, because if we do it, we will have better public safety,” Guy says. “We'll have populations that we're not jailing for the wrong reasons.”


Addressing serious mental illness behind bars


But Jennifer Johnson, a public defender in San Francisco and co-founder of the city’s Behavioral Health Court, is skeptical that adding more services in the community will have a big impact on many of the people in the county’s jails who are seriously mentally ill.


“We don’t have mental health that is dedicated to a population of people that is in the criminal justice system,” Johnson says. While the number of inmates behind bars in San Francisco has been dropping, the proportion of inmates with serious mental illness has gone up. Johnson says that many of her clients are facing serious and violent felony charges.


“My clients wait five times longer for a program than people who are in the regular system, that are just walking off the street. That's not fair,” Johnson says. “They're sitting in jail for months and months, waiting for a bed.”


So after the new jail was rejected, Johnson co-wrote a paper, called Justice that Heals, that proposed building a Behavioral Health Justice Center instead of a jail. The center would have four floors of service and treatment for mentally ill individuals involved in the criminal justice system.


One way it could reduce the jail population is by including a locked treatment unit on the top floor, to house some mentally ill people who would otherwise be incarcerated.


No easy solutions


But Johnson was shocked when some activists in the working group saw her concept as a blueprint for another jail.


“If we don’t have this Behavorial Health Justice Center, the alternative is that people sit in jail,” Johnson says. “I’m not okay with that.”


In fact, since the working group started hashing out and debating solutions, San Francisco’s average daily jail count has risen by almost 150 people, according to San Francisco Sheriff Vicki Hennessy.


A few months ago, Hennessy had applied for a grant to renovate the county’s nearby jail on 7th Street. But she recently found out that the sheriff’s department didn’t get that grant. Now Hennessy is back to weighing her options.


“There's talk now about sending them to Alameda, and having them be in jail over there,” Hennessy says. “If the city administrator closes the Hall of Justice — as she has said — by 2019, I may not have a choice.”


San Francisco bucks the state’s jail construction trend


In other cities and towns throughout the state, about $2.5 billion in state funding is going towards constructing 10,000 new jail cells. Many of the state’s new jails are also being built specifically for people with mental illness.


But activist Roma Guy says that the city does have a choice. San Francisco's jail population has gone down before, and it can go down again — if there’s the will.


“You know, 25 years ago, I was a criminal, because I’m a lesbian, okay?” Guy says. “There are people who are sitting in jail, like immigrants, or some people who are there from racial bias to illness. We have to change our ideas about why people go to jail. I don't see that as impossible.”


Most of the Hall of Justice may close by 2019. That means activists and city leaders should still have at least a couple of years to try creative solutions towards reducing the city’s jail population. But if they can’t, a new jail might be back on the table.