Through Senate Bill 863, the State of California has released $500 million in the form of revenue bonds and notes to increase jail construction in 15 counties, with San Francisco among those receiving the highest award of $80 million. This is one of several efforts statewide to expand jails in the wake of a federal court order to reduce prison populations. On Tuesday, December 15, the City and County of San Francisco is positioned to set an example for the rest of the state of California as the Board of Supervisors prepare to take a historic vote on whether or not to approve the construction of a new $240 million jail.
People who have loved ones in the criminal (in)justice system and those who organize around issues of police violence and prison expansion know that the prison industrial complex (PIC) is ever-shifting. One of the ways that the PIC expands is by shuffling people around into different types of cages. In California, the response to massive crowding in the prison system has been to move people convicted of “non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual” into the county jail system. While many advocates want prisoners to be released and returned closer to home, the shuffling of people from cage to cage does not reduce the impact of imprisonment on families and communities. These efforts often also isolate those convicted of “violent, serious or sexual” crimes from receiving support or harden the sentences imposed upon them.
Yet, funding for jails also comes with organizers fighting to demand real solutions for their residents, and at least five California counties are engaging in active jail fights.
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Since a major push for expansion in the 1980s and 90s, organizations and community groups statewide have continued to organize against jail and prison growth and for community based alternatives to caging people. The No New SF Jail Coalition is one such example that has been organizing, building power, and advocating for the past three years against a new jail in its city. The No New SF Jail Coalition includes many different community organizations such as Critical Resistance, San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, Taxpayers for Public Safety, Transgender Gendervariant Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), and Communities United Against Violence (CUAV), and represents a wide range of community interests that have come together to build their collective strength to stop the proposed new SF jail.
San Francisco is a city and county that is often looked to for its “liberal” stance on criminal justice and pushes the nation on many progressive issues. San Francisco today is also a very different place than San Francisco even 10 years ago. As the boom in the tech industry has created immense amounts wealth for some, the city is currently entrenched in an unprecedented housing crisis that is causing mass displacement of poor Brown and Black people, the extreme criminalization of homelessness and poverty, and incredible police violence including the recent murder of Mario Woods by SFPD (Rest in Power). The push to build a new jail in San Francisco has everything to do with this shifting political landscape, affecting the rest of the Bay Area, especially Oakland. This same trend is seen across the country, with increases in police staffing and jail construction facilitating gentrification, supporting the displacement of long-time residents and paving the road for new wealth.
In a time when national leaders from across the political spectrum are speaking out against mass imprisonment, San Francisco can serve as a guiding light for our nation, dismantling the PIC one jail at a time.
The proposed new SF jail will create 23 years of debt and will cost over $240 million for construction alone. This comes at a time where other life affirming services and organizations are being evicted, displaced or shutting their doors due to a lack of funding. The current argument for building the new SF jail is that the Hall of (in)Justice at 850 Bryant Street is seismically unsafe and in incredible disrepair. We absolutely agree and advocate that the Hall of Justice be closed immediately and that the people currently imprisoned inside be released back to the community.
In fact, the current SF jail population is frequently only at 50% capacity, and of that population 80% on any given day are being held pre-trial, many because they are simply too poor to afford their bail. Disturbingly, 56% of the jail population is African American though only 3-5% of San Francisco’s population is African American. In addition, 28% of the jail population is homeless and many more become homeless upon release. This unfortunate reality is mirrored in urban areas across the US, cities like Los Angeles, Oakland, New York City, Ferguson, Baltimore, and Chicago.
The law enforcement rhetoric being used to validate new jail construction across this country is that people in jails need state-of-the-art technology for families to visit each other, extra funding for mental health support, special gender-responsive services for trans women and generally kinder, or gentler jails to keep people safe. This rhetoric denies the reality that jails are fundamentally harmful, hurting families by separating them, creating mental health distress, exacerbating pre-existing health conditions and disabilities, and creating abusive conditions for trans women. No matter how nice the jail seems, a cage is still a cage.
The No New SF Jail Coalition’s position has been clear since day one – what cities and counties need to keep their residents safe is housing, health care, mental health support, harm reductive substance use support, education, meaningful employment, community organizations, re-entry support and pre-trial diversion – not jails.
The shift in public opinion against the jail has been palpable in the last few weeks. Last Wednesday, organizers with the No New SF Jail Coalition shut down a City Hall hearing with 5 activists locking themselves together in the Chambers and nearly a hundred others chanting and demanding that San Francisco return the $80 million grant for jail construction and invest in the future of all San Franciscans, not just those with racial and economic privilege. Later in the week, several Supervisors who have not yet taken a public stance against this jail project expressed concerns around building the new jail.
No New SF Jail Coalition’s organizing is shifting power alongside all other organizations working to dismantle jails and prisons. We can’t slow down now. What happens on December 15 in San Francisco does not happen in a vacuum. If we defeat jail expansion in San Francisco, other counties can look to this model to build community based alternatives to imprisonment. The SF Board of Supervisors have a chance to change the tide of this country and say no to imprisonment, say no to the violence of policing, say no to jail expansion and yes to alternatives that keep us all safe and support our livelihood and well-being.
The time is now to change this conversation locally, statewide and nationally. Jails are violent, unsafe and perpetuate systemic oppression and social problems. This is the time to invest in the future of San Francisco and the future of communities across the country, to stand together and demand that there be no new SF jail, that there will be no more jails.