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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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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.

About The Author

George Cothran

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