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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
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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.

About The Author

George Cothran

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