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The Black Hole of San Francisco 

This jail is a filthy, unhealthy, decrepit, barbaric nightmare. This jail will probably collapse and kill hundreds if there is a significant earthquake. The city of San Francisco keeps using this unconstitutional hellhole because people who call t

Wednesday, Aug 27 1997
Billy Besk was 18 years old when he was jailed in 1990 on a minor pot charge, his first criminal offense, while vacationing in San Francisco with his parents.

What happened to him in S.F.'s Jail No. 3 in San Bruno still haunts the young man's life.

The nightmare began while Besk was driving near Fisherman's Wharf on Sept. 22, 1990. A cop, looking for a car thief, pulled him over. Besk was no auto thief, but he did have 7 ounces of marijuana in the vehicle. The officer hauled him off to jail.

After a few days at a downtown lockup, the Sheriff's Department transferred Besk to Jail No. 3 in San Bruno.

The teen-ager, a gardener from the woodsy environs of New Hampshire, landed on the fourth floor of the southern tier at San Bruno, known as 4-South. At the time, the tier was reserved for low-level offenders.

In theory.
A few days before Besk arrived on 4-South, Monroe "L.A." Jones had been locked up there. Jones was in jail because he had assaulted two men and been arrested while in possession of a firearm. Jones had previously been found guilty of kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon, and statutory rape. He also had a history of predatory sex crimes.

Somehow, though, this background escaped the attention of the jailers at San Bruno, and L.A. Jones was classified as a low-level offender and placed on 4-South. Worse yet, he was made a jail trustee, meaning he was given responsibilities, such as distributing food, that ordinary inmates did not have. With those responsibilities came authority and power.

Immediately, L.A. used that power to prey on Billy Besk.
"Each day," Besk has stated in sworn court filings, "L.A. would come to me and say I was cute, that he wanted some pussy, would I take a shower with him, and I would just walk away from him, although there was no place to go.

"L.A. was a very large man about 43 years old, who obviously had a lot of prison experience. He organized 4-South like a prison tier. He ran it, everyone was his henchman."

Deputies neither saw nor heard L.A.'s propositions because, Besk declared, "[o]ften deputies weren't around when you needed them, and the only time deputies actually came into the tier was when they were locking or unlocking the individual cells. When the deputies were outside the tier, they couldn't see inside the cells on the tier."

On Oct. 3, 1990, one of the inmates who had come under the control of trustee Jones, Darren Smith, told Besk he'd have to fight his cellmate, Yusef, to prove he wasn't a "pussy." After the fight, Smith and another trustee led Besk back to his cell, where they beat him, forced his head into the toilet, and made him drink dirty toilet water. Afterward, Smith and the other trustee had him stand on his head.

"Can you take it?" they asked him repeatedly. "You going to run to L.A.?"
This abuse went on for approximately 30 minutes. Then Jones entered the cell with a plastic container of butter.

"He put a blanket up on the cell front, while a guy named Leo stood outside as a lookout. L.A. said, 'Take your pants off,' and I was in great fear at the time, since L.A. had previously stated that he could kill me. I took my pants off because I was terrified. L.A. told me to get on the bed, and I sat down, but he told me, 'No, lie down.'

"He then took his index finger, put it in the plastic jar, and then inserted it in my anus. At that point, I stuck my head in the bed, so I wouldn't have to think about what was happening. I keep seeing it now, keep thinking about it, it feels gross, I feel dirty.

"L.A. stroked himself, giving himself an erection, using the butter. He then got on top of me, and grabbed my fists with his hands and proceeded to put his penis in me. I kept saying, 'Ouch,' since it hurt terribly. L.A. said, 'Shut the fuck up.'

"After a few minutes, someone yelled, 'Deputy on the tier,' and L.A. got off, made me put my pants on, and made me pre-tend that we were playing cards, until the deputy left.

"L.A. put the blanket back up. He had me stand at the toilet leaning over, and he greased me, as well as himself. He then had me lie back on the bed, reinserted himself, and proceeded to rape me for about five more minutes. He had an orgasm. It was horrible. There was no conversation."

According to the Sheriff's Department's report on the incident, the entire time Jones was raping Besk, inmates were peeking behind the curtain and laughing. Others jumped on the table in the middle of the tier to try to get a look at Besk "getting punked."

"When it was over," Besk told the court, "L.A. said, 'Don't worry, when we do it again, it won't hurt as much, you'll get used to it, you'll like it.' "

Jones told the teen-ager he was now "his wife."
"He and some others told me snitches die in jail," Besk declared. The other inmates made fun of Besk, called him Jones' "wife," taunted him with comments like, "Can I have some of that pussy?"

Over the next couple of days, Besk told deputies he was thinking of committing suicide. But he did not tell them he had been raped.

This is how he described his emotions in court: "I felt gross, sick. I couldn't sleep, couldn't eat, I still have problems sleeping. It's getting worse. I sometimes feel like I'm going crazy."

Besk was too terrified to inform on Jones, but, amazingly, another inmate, 21-year-old Hannibal Thompson, was so angered by the rape that he told his public defender, who in turn told the Sheriff's Department. Jones and his henchman, Smith, were arrested.

Shortly after the rape was reported, a sheriff's deputy at San Bruno Jail placed a call to Mort Cohen, a law professor at Golden Gate University who had been suing the city over conditions at Jail No. 1 at the Hall of Justice since 1978. The deputy suggested that Cohen file a suit against San Bruno. Cohen did -- but not soon enough to save Billy Besk.

Besk was sent to the sexual trauma unit at San Francisco General Hospital. After pleading guilty to pot charges he was granted probation and he returned to New Hampshire. Jones was convicted of raping Besk and another inmate on the same tier around the same time he raped Besk.

As devastated as Besk was, he lent his name and experience to a class-action lawsuit over conditions at Jail No. 3. But the lawsuit only further exacerbated his pain. After word of his awful experience got out, his friends back home in New Hampshire taunted him.

"I guess that's the way guys are," Mort Cohen says. "They look for the vulner-able spots."

The staff at Jail No. 3 in San Bruno uses 86,400 feet of duct tape each year. While the liberal use of Shur Tape surely pleases its maker, Shaford Mills Inc., no jail should need that much duct tape.

But tape is all that's holding key parts of the jail together. It keeps the loose asbestos on the aging pipes. It prevents water from shooting out of the leaky pipes, toilets, and sinks. It holds the plastic sheeting over the jail's hundreds of broken windows. And, among many other things, it prevents the crumbling walls and the paint chips flaking from the crumbling walls from falling into the food of inmates. Sometimes.

A few weeks ago, Capt. Dennis Williams, the current director of the jail, held a staff meeting. In the meeting, he issued a directive: Stock up on duct tape. Winter was just three to four months away, and, Capt. Williams stressed to his staff, we don't want to be caught short. The 12 cases of plastic sheeting the jail uses each year were also discussed.

It's not just the crumbling quality of San Bruno Jail that makes the place a hellhole. Built in 1934 to house docile public inebriates, San Bruno Jail is a study in antiquated penological thinking. Its every structural element directly promotes the very real promise of harm -- deadly harm in some cases -- to its inmates.

Long, narrow tiers enclosed behind gates obliterate sight lines for deputies, making rape and beatings and slashings easy, and easy to get away with. The linear construction also makes the passing of contraband -- such as homemade knives (razor blades melted into toothbrushes) -- easy as well.

The jail is seven stories high, and by architectural standards, wafer thin. Beginning on the second floor and running through the center of the building all the way to the top is a hollow rotunda. To the north and south of the rotunda lie wings containing a total of two dormitories (on the second floor) and eight tiers, each 160 feet long.

The rotunda acts like a bell tower, or amplifier, producing a noise level once measured at 70 decibels, the equivalent of a ringing alarm clock two feet from the head of the listener. The noise can, and does, camouflage violent confrontations between inmates. The noise level also literally drives inmates and staff batty.

The cells are shockingly small. They provide just 24 square feet of living space, after the area the sink, toilet, and bunk require is deducted. The current state standard for housing an inmate is 80 square feet of cell space. Until last year, the city saw fit to house two inmates apiece in these cells, where it's hard for one person to turn around comfortably. And while Sheriff Michael Hennessey says he will never again double-cell -- as he did from 1985 to 1995, horribly overcrowding the facility -- he hasn't put that assertion in writing, and he has not removed the extra bunks from the cells.

"If you consciously set out to design a jail to promote violence, if you really tried to do that, you could not do better than San Bruno Jail," says Randolph Daar, an attorney suing the city over an inmate's beating at the hands of a sheriff's deputy at Jail No. 3.

The deplorable conditions at San Bruno Jail have been well-known to officials in San Francisco since the first lawsuit against the facility was brought in 1972. Over the intervening years, the city government's general response has been one of purposeful inaction and hopelessly inadequate half-measures.

In the balancing of municipal needs, the construction of a new jail has always lost out. Inexplicably wrongheaded decisions about budget and political priorities have led to a long-predicted outcome: Last month, a federal judge ruled that San Bruno Jail violated the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That is, the judge ruled, incarceration in Jail No. 3 abridges a person's right to due process under the law.

The order handed down by Judge William Orrick made clear that San Bruno Jail is a deathtrap that is horribly, fundamentally inhumane on many grounds. The most serious of those grounds involve fire and earthquake safety.

If a tremor or a fire were to strike, most of the inmates in Jail No. 3 would probably be killed. And an earthquake is not a theoretical threat. The jail sits a mere 440 yards from the San Andreas fault.

The official inaction concerning San Bruno Jail has been disturbing. More troubling is the main cause of that inaction. Repeated attempts to replace San Bruno Jail with a new and safer facility have been thwarted by liberal political advocates who argue, with very little empirical justification, that the city does not need a new jail, that it can empty cells by removing inmates from jail and placing them in community-based nonprofit alternatives to incarceration.

These political advocates have propounded theories that ignore the realities of California's criminal justice system. Public records on San Francisco jailing patterns clearly show that alternative placement and pretrial release cannot be reasonably expected to reduce the jail population enough to eliminate the need for San Bruno Jail.

But the advocates of community-based jail alternatives campaigned long and hard to defeat two recent bond issues aimed at building a new Jail No. 3, creating a de facto moratorium on jail construction. In doing so, these liberal anti-jail advocates have perpetuated deadly living conditions for the very underprivileged people they claim as a constituency.

Judge Orrick's ruling, entered July 17, might have helped Sheriff Hennessey, who desperately wants a new jail, overcome the arguments of what he calls the "jail moratorium crowd." The judge has, after all, told the city that it must do something about its unconstitutional dungeon.

But now the sheriff faces opposition from within city government itself.
City Attorney Louise Renne has appealed Orrick's ruling -- even though one of her major clients in the case, Sheriff Hennessey, is more than willing to admit his jail is a horror. In fighting the lawsuit over Jail No. 3, Renne has adopted the position that the conditions at San Bruno Jail are bad, but they do not violate the Constitution.

It's a lawyerly argument that may or may not persuade the appellate justices it is aimed at. But it is an argument that could remove from the sheriff's hand the one club -- the force of a court order -- that he needs to finally tear down the hellhole in San Bruno.

In her appeal over Jail No. 3, Renne has argued that the city can be trusted to fix whatever is wrong with San Bruno Jail. Like the jail moratorium forces, Renne is arguing against abundant, documented reality. (Through her press secretary, Renne declined to be interviewed for this article.)

For 18 years beginning in 1978, the city labored under federal court oversight of conditions at Jail No. 1, which is located on the sixth floor at the Hall of Justice in San Francisco. During that period of federal control, city inaction and incompetence led to $2.3 million in federal fines.

Renne says the city has shown good faith in regard to Jail No. 3 by putting forward a plan to replace San Bruno with a more modern jail.

But that plan is vague at this point. It is far from certain of gaining the political support necessary to implement it. And even in the best-case scenario, the city would use San Bruno until the new jail is constructed -- at the earliest, in 2002.

In other words, even if the city has a good-faith plan to replace it, for the next five to six years, inmates and staff will remain in the horror that is Jail No. 3.

Ninety percent of the inmates at San Bruno have not been to trial. They are not convicted of anything. In the eyes of the American judicial system, they are absolutely innocent of wrongdoing.

By the time Billy Besk was brutally raped, Mort Cohen had long experience in suing the city's jail system. In the mid-1970s, a young legal aid attorney named Michael Hennessey called him and said something like, "Mort, I've been in and out of the sixth floor of the Hall of Justice talking to inmates, and the place is really overcrowded, and the medical care is substandard. I think you should sue."

Cohen took Hennessey's advice. He found a willing plaintiff in Will Stone, an art gallery owner who was beaten up while spending several days in the jail for a slew of traffic warrants. The Stone case, filed in 1978, landed in the courtroom of William Orrick. In 1982, the plaintiffs won a consent decree with the city; the decree required San Francisco to reduce the jail population, to hire more staff, and to improve the medical care, which included a promise to hire a psychiatric director. The city failed on many counts, repeatedly and for years, and contempt citations, followed by hefty fines, started rolling off Orrick's dais.

By that time -- 1980 -- the young legal aid attorney had been elected sheriff. Chafing under a lawsuit he had inspired, a jail system that was too small, and the political difficulty of building new jails, Hennessey had few choices, all of them bad.

To avoid overcrowding Jail No. 1, Hennessey began moving Jail 1 inmates to San Bruno in 1985.

Five years later, when Billy Besk landed in Jail 1 on his meager pot charges, the practice of unloading prisoners onto the decrepit facility at San Bruno had become routine. From 1986 until last year, San Bruno Jail ran, on average, at least 20 percent over capacity. On some days the population exceeded 800 inmates in a facility designed to house 557, everyone in double cells, the noise deafening, the ceiling falling in on staff and inmates, violence and the threat of same ever-present.

But, legally speaking, that was no problem; there was no legal imperative of any kind relating to San Bruno Jail.

Billy Besk's nightmare would change all of that.
After rounding up four additional plaintiffs, who had either been raped or beaten or both, Cohen filed Besk vs. City and County of San Francisco et al in October 1991. Federal court rules dictated that Orrick hear the case. Suddenly, two-thirds of the city's jail system was before an increasingly impatient federal judge.

Two years of talks between the city and inmate lawyers ensued, and in March 1993 the city settled the case, agreeing to improve conditions at San Bruno Jail. The agreement included city promises to improve fire safety, and fix plumbing and heating systems and other physical defects. The city also agreed to deal with overcrowding in a variety of ways.

All things considered, the city got off easy. It did not enter into a consent decree, which could have involved a court-appointed overseer to monitor compliance. The city merely agreed to fix certain things, on its word of honor. It was allowed to continue housing an inmate population far beyond what the jail could reasonably handle.

Even those lenient conditions were too much for San Francisco city officials. As in the Stone case, the city broke its promises and was hauled back into court.

One year after the city agreed to fix San Bruno Jail, conditions there remained at Third World levels. One of the biggest breaches involved the promise to hire new deputies.

Hiring deputies and correcting physical defects -- leaky pipes, rickety fire safety devices on doors, broken windows -- were easy to agree to in the polite confines of a courtroom. But when the sheriff stepped into the real world of politics, he was reminded that jail inmates don't draw much attention when the money gets doled out of City Hall.

According to the Besk settlement, the city was supposed to have a complement of 104 deputies at Jail No. 3, still about 10 below the number a court-hired specialist said was necessary. Instead, the staffing level fluctuated between 85 and the low 90s.

The city's failure to live up to its staffing promises led Cohen to refile the Besk lawsuit, this time with Arnold Jones as his lead plaintiff.

Jones had spent 73 hellish days in San Bruno Jail. A schizophrenic, he could not get his medication from jail psychiatric services for almost a week.

"This inmate [Jones], who had a serious mental illness, which involved hearing voices, was housed with a violent man with AIDS in a double cell," Cohen stated in court papers. "The cellmate got into fights with other inmates, and wanted to have sex with [Jones]. This was not unusual; mentally ill inmates were forced to have sex."

Jones' cellmate kept saying he was going to bite him and give him AIDS. Jones requested eight times to be moved from his cell and was turned down each time.

Judge Orrick appointed an investigator, Alan Breed, who issued a shocking 400-page report in 1995.

Breed found the expected deficiencies -- the tiny cells, the long tiers that facilitated violence, the inmates who were locked up for overly long periods of time, the double-celling of inmates that "violated all correctional standards," and the substandard staffing levels.

In addition, Breed found a level of institutional decay that can only be described as staggering. Paint and plaster rained on inmates. Rust and rot were everywhere. Rats and cockroaches were plentiful. The boiler was long ago beyond repair. Hot water was an unpredictable commodity. (When the sheriff rented a portable boiler, its gas fumes filled the jail's sick ward.) Hundreds of windows were broken, allowing wind and rain to pour in on inmates. Toilets and sinks were horribly corroded; they leaked and backed up and sprayed inmates when the men flushed or turned on the faucet. The ceiling of the jail was falling in on itself, giving rise to unfixable leakage streams that dripped, dropped, and gushed water down on inmates and staff.

The jail lacked sprinkler systems and smoke detectors. The building was seismically unsafe. And Breed enumerated what had been well known since the Besk case was first settled: The jail was also horribly overcrowded.

A legal skirmish necessitated a second Breed report, which found one improvement: The city, having opened a new Hall of Justice jail in December 1995, had lowered the population at Jail No. 3 by several hundred inmates. But as Sheriff Hennessey says, "The rest is just duct tape and bailing wire."

Orrick's course was clear: On July 17, he found that San Francisco's Jail No. 3 violated the constitutional rights of inmates in many, many ways.

While the city's lawyers were fighting, and losing, court battles over Jail No. 3, Sheriff Hennessey was fighting on a separate front: He wanted to finance and build new jail space, so he could reduce overcrowding and crawl from beneath the expensive shame of federal court oversight.

By the early 1990s, Hennessey had succeeded in building a 330-inmate jail next door to San Bruno, and funding a new jail at the Hall of Justice. He still wanted to replace San Bruno, for space and humanitarian reasons. But he ran into a concrete wall of ugly, misguided politics.

In both 1992 and 1994, then-Mayor Frank Jordan asked voters to approve bonds to build a new jail. But he asked them to approve a type of financing -- general obligation bonds -- that requires a two-thirds majority to pass. Both bond proposals were defeated, even though more than 50 percent of voters favored them.

The jail measures fell short of the needed majorities for two political reasons. On the one hand, property owners who would be taxed to pay for the jail -- especially conservative property owners on the city's west side -- voted against the debt plans. Many seasoned political observers, however, feel the margin of defeat was provided by members of the political left --jail moratorium advocates -- who campaigned vigorously against both measures.

The man who more than anyone shaped the arguments that won over liberals and helped defeat the jail bonds was a virtuoso of statistics and political spin named Vincent Schiraldi. Schiraldi runs a nonprofit group called the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, which maintains offices in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. (Schiraldi now runs the Washington office.) CJCJ offers a range of programs for juvenile and adult offenders. All of those programs are geared toward getting people who have been convicted of criminal behavior out of jail and, the group posits, into an environment more conducive to rehabilitation.

Clearly, Schiraldi and his allies genuinely believe that community-based alternatives offer a better approach to dealing with crime than mass incarceration. But they also have a huge financial incentive to oppose the construction of jails. Lack of jail space keeps pressure on the judicial system to fund and use nonprofit alternatives to incarceration.

In both '92 and '94, Schiraldi and company claimed that Hennessey was attempting a massive and unnecessary jail expansion that threatened other city services. Hennessey was asking for a 768-bed jail. Schiraldi said a jail offering a capacity of about half that size was all that was needed.

Schiraldi also played the race card. He trotted out South African jail statistics to show that San Francisco had an incarceration rate of African-Americans 10 times that of the land of apartheid. Schiraldi added to the race argument in 1994. He told voters that the money proposed to be used to build a new jail would be enough to house every homeless person in San Francisco in a nice apartment.

The arguments about minorities and the homeless had little to do with the need for jail space. But they attracted votes from liberal constituencies and helped defeat the jail bond issues.

In an interview this month, Schiraldi continued to maintain that it would be possible to move as many as 557 inmates (the total population of Jail No. 3) out of San Francisco's jail system and into community-based organizations. He said the vast majority of people in the city's jails are there for nonviolent, "meatball" offenses.

"If Hennessey is telling you different, then he's making the cynical argument of a man who's been in the job too long," Schiraldi said.

Whether Hennessey has outlived his welcome as sheriff is a matter of opinion. Schiraldi's assertion -- that community-based alternatives can substitute for a new jail -- is not.

It is simply, empirically incorrect.

Schiraldi has a solution to the Jail No. 3 dilemma: Tear down the San Bruno facility. Don't replace it. Use the money spent there to fund more nonprofits and put the inmates into their care.

On many levels, his argument ignores reality.
Regardless of what Michael Hennessey or Vincent Schiraldi thinks or believes, trial judges determine whether criminal defendants go to, or get out of, jail. Judges say when defendants can and cannot be released from jail before trial. After trial, judges impose the sentences that put defendants in jail, or release them to alternative programs.

On average, roughly 90 percent of the inmates at San Bruno's Jail No. 3 are pretrial detainees -- that is, they have been charged with crimes and are awaiting trial.

When a defendant is booked on a criminal charge, he or she has four options for avoiding a pretrial stay in jail. All of these methods of pretrial release seem to be used to maximal levels in San Francisco.

Citation Release If someone is arrested on a misdemeanor charge -- say, petty theft -- the sheriff has the power to cite and release the defendant. In the vast majority of such cases, he does just that.

Bail Shortly after a person is arrested on a felony charge, a judge will set bail -- that is, an amount of money to be put up by the defendant to ensure he or she will show up to trial. If bail is posted, the defendant is released from jail.

Own Recognizance Release If a defendant fails to make bail, someone from the nonprofit Own Recognizance Project visits and draws up a packet of biographical information that is presented to a judge at arraignment. The judge decides whether to release the defendant without bail, based on his background.

Supervised Pretrial Release If a defendant is not released on his own recognizance, he or she gets a second bite at the pretrial release apple: the supervised pretrial release project. In this program, pretrial supervision workers compile a defendant profile and present it to the judge. If the judge agrees, the defendant is released to nonprofit treatment programs, mostly drug rehabilitation efforts, until trial.

Exact statistics are hard to come by, but it's accurate to say that San Francisco has one of the most liberal pretrial release systems in the country, and that tens of thousands of defendants are released from jail each year before trial under all the levels of pretrial release offered in this city.

If a defendant fails to gain any of these possible forms of release, he or she has: committed serious crimes or violent crimes; accumulated a scary criminal record; committed crimes in other counties; or been unable to prove he or she is a U.S. citizen.

There is another category of pretrial detainee in Jail No. 3: people who were convicted of crimes and given probated sentences -- and then violated the terms of their probation. Under current justice system practices, these people -- who were put in a program that allowed them to avoid incarceration and then failed to follow that program -- cannot, for any reason, be released prior to trial.

About 10 percent of the population at Jail No. 3 is composed of post-trial detainees -- people who have been found guilty and are serving a jail sentence or are awaiting transfer to a state prison. These people are in jail by court order -- that is, criminal conviction. Unless those court orders are reversed or changed, these people must remain incarcerated.

In short, San Francisco is not, by any reasonable measure, ruled by a gulag mentality. Pretrial release is used to a maximum. Studies of the jail population show that most of those in stir simply cannot be released under current rules of the justice system -- rules that are unlikely to change soon.

On Aug. 13, the San Francisco jail system held 1,600 inmates who were awaiting trial. The vast majority of these inmates were convicted criminals who had violated probation. They were completely ineligible for pretrial release under any circumstance.

It's this population -- those who have violated parole, been jailed, and can't get out -- that makes Schiraldi mad. He says they should be released to nonprofit alternatives to jail. This is the main population he wants to reach to depopulate jails.

Ultimately, Schiraldi's arguments boil down to a collection of shoulds. Trial judges should release more inmates without bail, and they should allow more convicted felons to do time in a treatment program, rather than jail. Sheriff Hennessey should strong-arm judges and district attorneys into funding alternatives to jail, stopping probation holds, and releasing more drug offenders into nonprofit treatment centers.

Mort Cohen -- as liberal a lawyer as one is likely to find anywhere -- is well-aware of Vincent Schiraldi's shoulds. Asked what he thinks of those arguments, Cohen starts yelling at the advocate, as if he were standing in the office.

"Hey Vinnie, you got a lot of wonderful, pie-in-the-sky ideas. But no one is doing that, Vinnie. What do you do with the Billy Besks of the world, Vinnie?"

Cohen turns harsh, angry. "Do you want to get raped down there at San Bruno, Vinnie? Huh, Vinnie? Do you want to get raped like Billy Besk? Hey, Vinnie, that's your constituency. Who are you protecting Vinnie, them or some ideal?"

Two recent visits to San Bruno Jail, involving interviews with approximately 20 inmates, yielded a picture of horror more intimate and disturbing than anything contained in a court record.

(The visits to the jail were the result of a weeklong negotiation with the sheriff. At first, Hennessey offered to allow this reporter to be incarcerated at San Bruno for four full days. This offer was accepted, but the sheriff eventually reneged. Two tours of the jail were, however, extensive, lengthy, and uncontrolled by employees of the Sheriff's Department.)

Day 1 The third floor tier on the north side of the jail is crowded. Inmates are out of their cells. One walks into the shower stall and tries vainly to get enough hot water out of the faucet to make his cup of noodles. Others sit vacantly and watch soap operas on television. Some write letters on yellow legal paper. Others lie on bunks reading wrestling magazines.

Greg Crumpler comes up and complains that he's been wheezing ever since he got to San Bruno Jail. "And my skin is irritated," he says. He surmises that it's asbestos and the lack of air on the tiers. Or both. He just knows it started when he got to San Bruno Jail.

Robert Bell, a trustee awaiting trial on battery and evading police, shows off his cell. On the walls is the infamous duct tape, plugging holes, cracks, and fissures through which water of unknown origin drips. "Man, you don't know how long that water been up there," Bell says, jerking his hand back from the wall drip.

Earlie Divine Madison, locked up for boosting a car, says the violence is bad. "Guys get hit with broom handles," he says. "They take the broom part off, so they just got the metal part and, BOOM, right in the head. Happens all the time."

Day 2 On the sixth floor, duct tape covers most of the walls in huge swaths. Window panes are broken and plastic sheeting has been put up, but the inmates have torn the sheeting down to let in air. The entire tier is stifling; the air doesn't move.

Eric Pressley says, "Hey, try staying in this 24-7. You get more drama in here. Your attitude is just not normal."

Another inmate, Damon (who refuses to divulge his last name), a muscular gent wearing a black rosary around his neck, says, "The plumbing is all fucked up. The toilets and sinks are always clogged and dirty." Kenyata Downs, a probation violator, cuts in: "Yeah, come look at my sink."

Indeed, in his cell a stainless steel sink is full of filthy brown water. Downs says it's been that way for several days. "It's toilet water, man, it backs up in the sink." The smell confirms his charge.

Another inmate has a brilliant idea. "They should have the damn voters come and take a look at this shit," he says.

As caustic as the inmates can be, the biggest critic of Jail No. 3 may be its director, Capt. Williams, who led the second day's tour.

Entering the educational wing, where the library, print shop, and classrooms are located, Williams walks into the office of jail counselor Richard Baxter.

Water pours out of the ceiling, from somewhere, god knows where, and into a bucket next to Baxter's desk.

The ceiling has several tiles missing; pipes are exposed. "Can you smell the gas?" Baxter asks. He thinks he has a leaky gas pipe in his closet, but isn't sure. An engineer has investigated, to no avail.

The conversation comes back to duct tape. Williams says that no matter what the staff does at or to San Bruno Jail, the building seems to contain some malevolent spirit that takes the improvement and twists it into a new problem. The duct tape, for example, keeps asbestos concealed and makeshift windows up. But it's also a wonderfully efficient aid to inmates who want to construct shivs.

"I have one in my desk that we confiscated yesterday," Williams says.
In the second-floor dormitories, Williams shows bars that prisoners recently tried to cut, using a saw held together by -- you guessed it -- duct tape. "The metal is so old and soft it's easy to cut," he says.

Walking into the elevator, which works today, Williams explains, again, how the building makes the job of securing inmates harder.

If the elevator breaks down, which happens about every other day, food has to be walked up the stairs to all eight tiers. That takes extra staff, removing deputies from their posts, so that inmates are not monitored properly. And the food gets cold. And the inmates get mad.

And that is Williams' main point: Each structural defect spins off other problems, and those problems spin off other problems, until at a certain point the staff is playing catch-up -- and not watching inmates.

"Our biggest and most important job should be managing the inmates," Williams says. "Instead it's fighting this building."

Last summer Mayor Willie Brown told Judge Orrick -- via the City Attorney's Office -- that he was going to put a bond measure on the ballot to finance a new jail in San Bruno. Naturally suspicious, Mort Cohen went down to the Department of Elections and did a little research, discovering that no such bond issue had been placed on the ballot. There were zoo bonds, school bonds, cultural center bonds. But no jail bonds. This led to some embarrassment for the city in court.

The mayor later told the court -- through his budget director this time -- that the earlier promise was made in good faith. The mayor just thought he'd found a better plan to replace the jail. He wanted, he told the court, to do what's called a "lease-back." Under this plan, a private company would build a new jail and then rent it to the city until the construction bill was paid off. This type of project is just about the most expensive way to build a jail. But it has two distinct advantages: It doesn't require a vote of the people, and the bill won't be paid until long after Willie Brown leaves office.

The city currently is considering seven bids from firms that want to build a jail and lease it to San Francisco. But they are just bids. No contracts have been signed.

Naturally Cohen won't believe the city actually is moving to build a new jail until he sees a signed contract and the doors of San Bruno locked forever. "If they win their appeal they could just drop [the bids]," Cohen says.

Meanwhile, the sheriff is assuming there will be no new jail. He wants to tear down San Bruno Jail tomorrow, without a replacement. The mayor has given him a brig on Treasure Island that will house 100 to 150 of the 500-plus inmates at Jail No. 3. That leaves the sheriff with a 350-inmate question mark. The chances that he could persuade judges to let that many pretrial felons out of jail are slim. He knows this.

"It's going to be a tough sell," he says. It will be an even tougher sell if Renne wins on appeal and Hennessey no longer has the Orrick ruling as leverage on the judges.

Everything about Jail No. 3 is up in the air. And amid all the uncertainties, it's reasonable to believe in one horribly unfortunate possibility: The city could continue, against all reason and moral imperative, to house innocent people in an unconstitutional deathtrap.

In his bleaker moods, Cohen thinks the only thing that will finally move the city to build a new jail is a disaster. He calls it the Birmingham Church Syndrome, referring to the 16th Street Baptist Church firebombing that killed four young black girls in Alabama on Sept. 15, 1963, and finally made the federal government pay attention to civil rights.

Will it really take the sight of horribly burned or crushed bodies in the heap of a burned or collapsed San Bruno Jail to make the most liberal city in America take action? The history of Jail No. 3 suggests that the most realistic answer to that question is -- perhaps. Perhaps that is exactly what it will take.

About The Author

George Cothran


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