San Francisco Speeds Up Closure of Dilapidated Jail

San Francisco Hall of Justice, which houses County Jail No. 4. (Courthouse News photo via Wikipedia)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — San Francisco officials voted Tuesday to expedite the closure of a city jail that has sparked multiple lawsuits over raw sewage floods and inhumane conditions.

Located on the top floor of San Francisco’s seven-story Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant Street, City Jail No. 4 was slated to be closed by June 30, 2021.

In a 10-1 vote, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved accelerating the shutdown to Nov. 1 this year amid ongoing efforts to reduce the inmate population at all city jails. The continued push to cut the number of inmates stems from both criminal justice reform initiatives and Covid-19 pandemic response efforts.

“This legislation is simply creating a mandate to close a facility that everyone agrees needs to be closed,” said Supervisor Sandra Fewer, who introduced the legislation.

Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who represents the city’s affluent neighborhoods of Pacific Heights and the Marina District, voted against the ordinance. She argued reduced jail capacity could make the city less safe.

“While I agree we do need to close this jail, I don’t think we can do that until I can demonstrate to my constituents that we are not putting victims of crime, including domestic violence and sexual assault victims, at risk,” Stefani said.

Opened in 1961, the jail was slated for demolition in 1996 when it was deemed seismically unsafe. Poor conditions at the facility have spurred numerous lawsuits, including one filed in 2018 over raw sewage floods that “occurred almost every day and at times occur three times a day.”

On Tuesday, plaintiffs in that case filed a motion for preliminary approval of a $2.1 million settlement to resolve the litigation.

In February, a federal judge also ordered the Sheriff’s Department to start providing certain inmates at County Jail No. 4 at least one hour of access to sunlight per week.

After initially voicing concerns about the accelerated timeline, San Francisco Sheriff Paul Miyamoto came on board to support the ordinance after amendments were added to give his office more flexibility in how it houses inmates.

“Our office is deeply committed to closing County Jail 4 for the health and safety of everyone there,” Miyamoto said during a brief appearance at Tuesday’s board meeting. “It’s seismically unsafe, outdated and dilapidated.”

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and the San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju have also voiced enthusiastic support for accelerating the shutdown of County Jail No. 4.

“I want to thank the many justice system partners who have affirmatively committed to the work to close this inhumane and seismically unfit facility,” Boudin said at a Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight Committee meeting Thursday.

In a statement, Raju said his office has been working for many years as part of a coalition to help close the “unsafe and unhealthy” facility.

“We have a big opportunity in San Francisco to reinvest in support services that support self-empowerment and facilitate rehabilitation while also keeping our communities safer,” Raju said.

By Nov. 1, all inmates will be transferred to San Francisco’s Jail No. 2 on 7th Street, which houses up to 392 inmates, and Jail No. 5 in San Bruno, which houses up to 768 inmates.

The ordinance requires the city’s inmate population stay at or below 1,044, which represents 90% capacity for its two other jails. It also mandates that a subcommittee of San Francisco’s Sentencing Commission draft a contingency plan by Oct. 1 in case the inmate population spikes coupled with recommendations for keeping the inmate population below capacity.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, San Francisco had already reduced its jail population significantly from a daily average of 2,061 inmates in 2008 to 1,110 in early March. The city took active steps to further cut the number of inmates and carry out social distancing in its jails to prevent the spread of Covid-19 starting March 9.

Since then, the inmate population dropped from 1,110 to 696 on Thursday last week. That number has since spiked slightly to 718 as of Tuesday morning, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

More than 94 employees work at County Jail No. 4, which can house up to 385 inmates. There were 129 inmates at Jail No. 4 as of Tuesday morning.

Two employees at County Jail No. 4 tested positive for Covid-19 in March. Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Nancy Crowley said the jail did contact tracing and tested all people who came into contact with the infected employees.

On Tuesday, the Sheriff’s Department announced that a third inmate had tested positive for Covid-19. Newly arrested people are tested for the virus before they enter any buildings and are isolated from other inmates at County Jail No. 2, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

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