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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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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.

About The Author

George Cothran

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