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Thursday, December 3, 2015

This Man Spent 40 Years Behind Bars But Still Supports SF’s Proposed New Jail

Posted By on Thu, Dec 3, 2015 at 2:44 PM

click to enlarge Ronald Haynes - PHOTO BY ADAM BRINKLOW
  • Photo by Adam Brinklow
  • Ronald Haynes
Once the fireworks at yesterday‘s budget committee meeting (which approved financing a new city jail and forwarded the proposal to the full Board of Supervisors for a vote next week) died down, a much different voice than the 100 or so demonstrators who briefly shut down the committee spoke up.

Ronald Haynes is a 62-year-old San Francisco resident who just finished a 40-year prison sentence on August 28. Haynes shares most of the same complaints as yesterday’s demonstrators (who were mostly young people of color, as Haynes was when he entered prison): He says he’s seen firsthand how the justice system railroads vulnerable people, and how modern prisons have become dumping grounds for the mentally ill and socially undesirable.

The difference is, he told the committee, these are the reasons he wants a new jail.

Born in San Francisco, Haynes once worked as a security guard at Coit Tower, and as one of the last paperboys for the San Francisco News-Call Bulletin (defunct since 1965). Of the 1974 murder-kidnapping charge that put him away for two thirds of his life (mostly spent in a Vacaville prison), he says simply that he didn’t do it.

“I didn’t even own a gun. I went to prison because I didn’t want to snitch. I was always taught to keep my mouth shut.”

He insists that prosecutors hung the charge on him because he wouldn’t testify against someone else. Citing the Black Panther Party and the heroes of various blacksploitation movies as his role models, he declined to play ball — and took the rap himself .

That’s how he tells it, anyway.

Whether this is true or not, Haynes did the time all the same. In prison, his nickname was “Rock Man” on account of the hours he spent in the weight room, and he claims he “never cursed” during his entire sentence. He became a Muslim after his first year behind bars (“Back before Islam was bad”) and now says he wants to be “as good as possible,” including being there for his 11 grandkids.

Prison changed a lot during the four decades Haynes was incarcerated. “When I went in, it was full of dangerous people. Now it’s full of sick people," he says.

He recalls marveling at the long lines of inmates waiting to be dispensed medications, and says that in recent years, his incarcerated peers resembled the homeless more than the hardened criminals of his youth. Prison, he says, is a warehouse for the poor and the sick.

This is the same charge leveled by protesters who see the proposed jail as a symptom of a society more interested in locking up the needy than helping them.

But Haynes says he supports the jail anyway.

“Jails are here. The system has already been built. You can’t stop that. I’ve been to 850 Bryant, I know that place, it‘s still here,” he says, referring to the rundown earthquake trap of a facility that will eventually have to close whether the city replaces it or not.

That’s not the kind of place we should be sticking these people, says Haynes. Further, he takes city officials at their word that they want this new facility so they can better serve the needs of San Francisco’s more vulnerable populations.

“Since I got out, I’ve seen these people try to help me. I want to help them back.”

It’s only one man’s opinion. But it’s worth at least that much.

Asked how he thought the board would vote on the final project, he said, “I think they’ve built it already.”

For a guy who hasn’t been around the city for 40 years, he has a pretty good idea how things work in this town. 

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