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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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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.

About The Author

George Cothran

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