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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

Page 7 of 7

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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