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Friday, March 13, 2015

How Trans Rights Could Lead to a More Progressive Jail System

Posted By on Fri, Mar 13, 2015 at 9:50 AM

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In most municipalities where the position of sheriff is an elected office, the occupants of that office tend to favor the law-and-order side of life. San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, by contrast, has a huge picture of Angela Davis on his wall (as well as vintage photos from L.B.J.’s 1964 re-election campaign, a signed Bob Dylan print, and a poster from the 15th Anarchist Book Fair).

They’re symbols and nothing more, it’s true, but after hearing Mirkarimi’s oratory at a recent #BlackLivesMatter/#TransLivesMatter rally in the Castro, I wanted to know more about his remarks on how the S.F. jail system is, in his words, “undercrowded,” and might become a model for progressive change statewide.

While undeniably important, I was slightly skeptical that trans rights were an especially salient issue in the city jails, and in the most direct sense, they are not. There is no epidemic of anti-trans violence or harassment in the system, either with inmates or guards as the victims. Inmates who identify as trans average around seven to 12 individuals at any given time (by Mirkarimi’s estimate), and they are now housed in the gender-appropriate pods. Lastly, considering that the average stay in a San Francisco jail is from 30-45 days, extensive medical interventions of the kind that, say, Chelsea Manning has had to fight for don’t really apply.

However, the procedural changes that trans rights have precipitated have the potential to lead to wider reform, a movement that replaces the prison-industrial complex with a more humane approach to incarceration — one that builds on the successes of the prison realignment that began five years ago.

Defying the forecasts of criminologists and worried community members, realignment didn’t lead to an epidemic of violent criminals prowling the streets. Instead San Francisco’s jails, with a capacity of 2,400, now house only about 1,200 people, down about one-third since the beginning of Mirkarimi’s term in 2012.

“We defied the odds,” Mirkarimi told me. “Our jail population has essentially plummeted in rapid time, and you don’t see the corresponding uptick in crime.”

Having shut one jail, he’s looking to close another — a building which Mirkarimi describes as “an empty Costco shell” — lest some future tough-on-crime governor see fit to fill it up again. The problem his department faces isn’t with right-leaning judges (who have little to no input when it comes to bail reform, or the possibility of putting electronic bracelets around the ankles of low-risk offenders), but with City Hall and the SFPD. Neither city supervisors nor police don’t want to cede turf to another law enforcement agency, even over something as trivial as assigning sheriff’s deputies to deliver mentally ill arrestees to SF General.

In this sense, San Francisco’s liberalism is its own stumbling block, a point Mirkarimi raised at the #BlackLivesMatter/#TransLivesMatter rally a few weeks back. Yes, a crusade to build a new jail is a tough sell in San Francisco. But the Sheriff’s data-driven advances are a good start, and the ease of changing the policy regarding transgender inmates shows that treating inmates as people might be a politically viable approach after all.

“This is a country that has used mass incarceration as its reflex,” Mirkarimi said. “Finally, you’re starting to see some inkling of change. I like the indicators, but am I optimistic about a wholesale change? No, not enough. I’m not seeing the progressivism out of City Hall that I used to see.”

Even if City Hall were amenable, executing this vision might be difficult. The Sheriff comes before the voters this fall, and his re-election prospects do not appear altogether rosy now that 100 members of the department have vowed to support his opponent. He’s never shaken off the domestic violence conviction that has dogged him since the beginning of his term, especially as the issue became a wedge in last year’s David vs. David Assembly seat brawl, demonstrating that its potency as a weapon to pick off Mirkarimi’s progressive allies has not waned.

Still, the significance of his proposals shouldn’t be understated. When a sheriff calls his jail “undercrowded,” it could be taken to mean he’s got a hankering to lock up some more miscreants. But this isn’t Tarrant County, Texas. Instead, Sheriff Mirkarimi wants to see his jails become a primary avenue for progressive social change.
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About The Author

Pete Kane

Pete Kane

Bio:
Pete Kane is a total gaylord who is trying to get to every national park before age 40

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