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San Francisco’s Earthquake-Unsafe Jail Leaves Prisoners in Peril

The Hall of Justice jail sits on soil that could liquefy and swallow parts of the building in an earthquake.

The facade of the San Francisco Hall of Justice, a courthouse which is part of the criminal court of the city of San Francisco, California, on October 13, 2017.

In earthquake-prone San Francisco, every year elementary schools hold legally mandated earthquake drills where students learn to “drop, cover, and hold on.” The government also regularly hires engineers who assess whether or not buildings in San Francisco could survive a major shaking like the 1906 tremor that left the city in a pile of splinters and ash.

One place that the city knows is beyond repair is the local Hall of Justice jail, a relic from the 1950s built on soil that’s highly susceptible to liquefaction: in an earthquake, the ground could literally become liquid and swallow up parts of the building and people inside it. Advocates say the people who face the most danger are the 300 to 400 prisoners caged inside the jail’s cells on any given day.

In reports dating as far back as 1992 and as recently as 2017, city inspectors describe the Hall of Justice as a seismic “life hazard” that in an earthquake would present a “crisis situation.” Other officials describe the building as a “death trap.” Yet almost 30 years after engineers deemed the Hall of Justice hazardous, Nancy Crowley, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, told Truthout that “there are no active plans to close” the jail.

Slowly, over the decades, the city has moved many Hall of Justice staffers elsewhere—for example, the police department relocated 500 of its officers to a new headquarters across town in 2015. However, the hundreds of people caged in the “death trap”—those who are serving jail sentences, can’t afford bail, or are on the court’s waiting list—are a reminder of the urgency of one of the main demands of the recent nationwide prison strike: to “recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.”

The San Francisco jail’s eggshell-blue interiors and below-ground construction are a throwback to the decade in which it was constructed. And while San Francisco’s Capital Plan calls for demolishing the building by 2025, advocates aren’t holding their breath. An alliance called the No New SF Jail Coalition, which includes formerly incarcerated people and their families, activists, medical workers and lawyers, would like to see the jail closed permanently, with no new cells built in its place.

The Elusive “Safe” Jail

Even without the threat of natural disasters, “Jails and prisons are unsafe regardless of how well the building is constructed,” said Nick DeRenzi, an organizer with the No New SF Jail Coalition. “We know this from the experiences of people inside, and the statistics on suicides and sexual assault people inside face.” (Prison rape is widely recognized as a problem by people at all levels of government, but the guards — who are responsible for about half of assaultsalmost never face consequences.)

“The people who arrest and cage our community members inside” of the jail — the SFPD and sheriff’s officers — “are as deadly to people of color, homeless individuals and folks with psychiatric disabilities as any earthquake,” DeRenzi said.

The No New SF Jail Coalition would like to see the hundreds of millions in public funding that the construction and running of a new jail would require to instead “go toward health care, free public education and subsidized, low-income housing.”

This fall, the coalition will release its new People’s Plan that outlines five policy proposals and investments the City could make in order to reduce the imprisoned population and close the Hall of Justice jail, including funding cooperative housing and neighborhood-based services, reducing the size of the police force, and using transformative justice strategies instead of jails to address harm. According to the 2016 version of the plan, the coalition seeks to expand outpatient substance use and mental health treatment programs and decriminalize “quality of life” charges in San Francisco — like the local “Sit/Lie” ordinance that outlaws sitting on the sidewalk — and is working to reduce the local impacts of reforms to the bail system that seek to imprison more people.

As the No New SF Jail Coalition points out, San Francisco’s jail is no different from most jails in the US: it’s filled heavily with prisoners who are Black, Latinx, Native American, poor, disabled and/or queer. The city’s own 2017 Jail Replacement Work Group found, most starkly, that even though San Francisco’s proportion of Black residents has shrunk to about 5 percent of the overall city population (from approximately 15 percent decades earlier), Black prisoners continue to make up more than 50 percent of the people the city keeps locked up.

Political Ill Will?

Some of San Francisco’s highest-ranking public officials publicly claim they’re also concerned about the many problems of imprisonment. In 2015, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors narrowly voted to turn down $80 million in state grant money that would go to new jail infrastructure.

The supervisors argued that instead of a new jail that would cost at least a quarter of a billion dollars to construct and even more to operate, the city should focus on ways to reduce the jail population, starting with the many people jailed because they can’t afford bail, or for being homeless or mentally ill.

“I’ve seen way too many people from my community, friends, even family members, end up on the wrong side of these iron bars,” said then-President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors London Breed, who became the city’s first Black female mayor-elect in July 2018. Breed told the audience at City Hall that accepting money that would ultimately go to building new lockup facilities would indicate “a return to an era of mass incarceration, an era San Francisco is trying to leave behind.”

After the decisive vote, dozens of No New SF Jail activists who had turned out to testify against the need for brand-new jail beds roared: This was a victory.

But now, the Breed administration’s anti-mass-incarceration stance seems less sure. In March, an all-Black, all-queer direct action group called the Lucy Parsons Project disrupted a mayoral candidate debate with a banner reading “London Breed Doesn’t Care About Black People” — a reference to the famous (pre-MAGA) Kanye West quote. One of the banner holders, Jeramy DeChristo, said Breed’s plan to increase the number of “cops and criminalize homelessness and drug use” could make San Francisco a “carceral” city, where “being Black in public is a high crime.”

DeChristo, who volunteered at No New SF Jail’s April 2018 Abolish the Prison Industrial Complex Summit and worked to halt the evictions of low-income tenants of color in Breed’s home district, said the Lucy Parsons Project doesn’t typically get involved in electoral politics, but that Breed’s “tough on crime” about-face compelled the group to act.

Breed’s mayoral campaign focused on adding 200 police officers to combat petty crimes like car break-ins, and increasing legal conservatorship for chronically homeless people. Legal conservatorship allows governments to deem people unable to take care of themselves for reasons such as mental disabilities, chronic homelessness, or drug use, and lock them up in psychiatric wards. It’s a program that the director of the local Coalition on Homelessness, Jennifer Friedenbach, called a threat to the homeless population that will mean more people institutionalized in jail-like facilities.

During a year when San Francisco activists held a protest charging that the city treats electronic sidewalk scooters better than its poorest citizens, taking away their self-determination may be just one more way to dehumanize an already criminalized group of people. As far back as 1988, the US House of Representatives convened a Committee on Aging that called conservatorship “a national disgrace.” The late committee chair Claude Pepper, a House Representative from Florida, once said that taking away a person’s self-determination is “the most punitive civil penalty that can be levied against an American citizen, with the exception, of course, of the death penalty.”

Conservatorship and the now-unstable Hall of Justice jail are artifacts of the same decade. In an email to Truthout, Carmen King of the ACLU of Northern California pointed to the organization’s opposition statement to Mayor Breed-supported conservatorship legislation signed by Governor Jerry Brown in September, SB 1045.

In the statement, the ACLU, the Coalition on Homelessness, and 15 other Bay Area organizations describe how in 1959, “as many as 37,500 Californians were held involuntarily in state-run institutions — some for their entire lives — in conditions widely found to be despicable and inhumane.” Disability rights organizers helped to close many of these institutions by the 1970s, but help in the form of community-based services and housing promised by the state “never materialized.” Breed’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment on this story.

One outcome was not acceptable, according to DeRenzi of the No New SF Jail Coalition: the “Behavioral Health Justice Center” proposed by Breed, which he said might look like “incarceration with a nicer-sounding name.” Ward 7L at the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital houses “inmates in need of psychological care requiring hospitalization,” and what’s “being sold as a justice center” could be an extension of Ward 7L, he said.

The city’s 2017 homeless survey found that of the 7,500 people it identified as homeless, 69 percent lived housed in San Francisco before becoming homeless.

The Coalition’s upcoming October 22 protest and a City Hall hearing on the jail two days later could further spotlight the hundreds of people inside what is locally known as Jail 4 (San Francisco has six jails) or by its address, 850 Bryant, currently trapped in the earthquake-prone cell blocks with the light blue walls. Unfortunately, it’s one of many lock-up facilities in the US that are utterly unprepared for natural disasters: just look at Rikers Island during Hurricane Sandy, the Orleans Parish Prison during Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, and Central California’s “prison alley” during Valley Fever outbreak season. These are all places where prisoners are treated as “less than human,” according to Cookie Bivens, a formerly incarcerated activist and legal advocate who visited Jail 4 in early 2018 with the Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project, a member of the No New SF Jail Coalition.

Bivens explained the endgame, from her perspective: “As long as I [and other activists] have the passion to keep fighting, we can, and will, shut that shit down.”

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