by TJ Johnston
No new jails will be built — that’s the clear message that activists sent to lawmakers in two Bay Area cities, and one that was heeded.
In a unanimous vote on December 15, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors turned down $80 million in state funds to pay for a jail with 384 extra beds. That relieved them of the responsibility for spending $240 million on the project over a 20-year period. The Board of Supervisors also agreed in principle to explore ways of enhancing mental health and drug treatment programs not tied to the criminal justice system.
The vote by the supervisors happened less than two weeks after activists from the No New SF Jail coalition staged a dramatic protest during a budget committee hearing in the board chamber, temporarily shutting down the meeting.
Similarly, the Richmond City Council in Contra Costa County passed a resolution last July not to allow construction of a new jail with 480 new beds in its neck of the woods. The City of Richmond also challenged the environmental impact report that supported the jail expansion. As a result, the California Board of State and County Corrections turned down the County’s application for the jail.
Community-based organizations opposed to the jails hailed these rejections as victories of enhanced social services over the prison-industrial complex. The No New SF Jail coalition organized the drive. Among its members were Critical Resistance, Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) and the Coalition on Homelessness.
In the East Bay, an alliance of labor, immigrant and faith-based groups fought against an expansion of the West County Detention Facility in Richmond. The East Bay group included Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization, Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy and the National Nurses Union.
Anti-jail advocates on both sides of the San Francisco Bay say money can now be freed up to bolster programs for mental health, substance abuse treatment, housing and other priorities over incarceration.
Kinder, gentler jails?
The promise of such services in new, kindler and gentler jails was something the Board of State and County Corrections used to entice counties to apply for funding under Senate Bill 863, state legislation that would finance local jails. In November, the state board approved $500 million for 15 county jail systems, including five in the Bay Area.
But opponents say jail construction creates collateral damage to their communities, and revamping these facilities is something they don’t want or need. Jessica Calderon, an advocate at Project WHAT who counsels children of inmates — and whose father was incarcerated — said jailing a parent takes an emotional toll on families.
“In all my time working to facilitate contact visits between children and their incarcerated parents, I have never heard a child ask for a nicer jail for their fathers or mothers to be contained in,” she said.
“What I have heard many times is the sound of children crying when leaving the visit because they want nothing more than their parent to be home with them.”
London Breed, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, cited her brother’s addiction and criminal history as a motivation for her “no” vote at the December 15 meeting. As the proposal for a new jail wended through the board for almost two years, she voiced her doubts about the project. Even when she voted to apply for the state grant last July, she vowed to vote against the jail if it was too big and costly.
“I’d rather go down in history as someone opposing something that is wrong than accept money that is going to continue to destroy people’s lives,” she said.
Departing Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi began the push for jail expansion, continued by his successor Vicki Hennessy. Mirkarimi said the facility housing the two jails at 850 Bryant Street was seismically unsafe. However, the jail population dwindled to its lowest point in over 30 years, because of pretrial diversion and alternative sentencing programs. As of December 5, San Francisco county jails housed 1,270 inmates in a 2,432-bed system, according to Sheriff’s Department estimates.
Iniquities in Penal System
The No New SF Jails coalition pointed out iniquities inherent in the penal system in San Francisco. While the African-American population shrunk to 6 percent citywide over a 40-year span, African Americans make up almost half the inmates in county jails. Also, 75 percent of inmates have substance abuse issues and 14 percent have severe mental illness, according to the city’s Department of Public Health.
But possibly the most telling sign comes from a Sheriff’s Department estimate of 85 percent of inmates held in pretrial custody. It’s likely that these inmates are unable to afford to post bail. A subcommittee of the city’s Re-entry Council and the Coalition on Homelessness found that jails act as de facto homeless shelters: 30 percent of the city’s homeless population have spent at least one night in jail during the last year. In a report released last year, the Coalition on Homelessness discovered that most homeless people, and some poor, housed folk, were likely to leave jail without stable housing.
Earlier in the year, Contra Costa County Sheriff David Livingston pushed his plan to add 480 beds in the West County jail without fanfare, but he hit a couple of sore spots in the community. For one, Livingston wanted to use $1.43 million in leftover state realignment funds meant for re-entry services toward the jail expansion.
Passionate outcry in the East Bay
Another critical point was the recent closure of the Doctor’s Medical Center in San Pablo due to lack of county funding.
Kristi Laughlin, director of Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy, said that was a reminder of what she saw as misplaced priorities. “The contrast was dramatic,” she said. “Funding could be found for a jail, but not for a hospital. I think that aggravated and motivated a very passionate outcry from people in Contra Costa County.”
Among the critics was Tamisha Walker, an organizer with the Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization. Walker, who was incarcerated in her youth and early adulthood, said such money should be allocated for health care and personal counseling. She noted that if better services were available when she was younger, she and her mother would have gotten addiction treatment sooner, and she would have avoided being caught up in the criminal justice system.
Like the county jails in San Francisco, the West County jail in Richmond operates at half-capacity: an average of 605 beds are used in a building that houses 1,096, raising the question, “why create a bigger jail for fewer inmates?”
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency rents 150 beds for undocumented people in custody, drawing criticism from the immigrant community.
Additionally, the county sheriff’s department held just one public meeting with city officials while convening closed-door conferences with other stakeholders. Laughlin said Sheriff Livingston’s under-the-radar campaign to expand the West County jail isn’t unique to Contra Costa County.
“It seemed like the common denominator in these jail fights is that they seemed to move very quietly,” she said. “I think they know there’s a discrepancy in how the public feels about mass incarceration and more money spent on jails and prisons, and how much we’re tolerating people being incarcerated and funding the apparatus of the status quo.”
Activists in Contra Costa had to move fast before the August 28 deadline for the county’s application. In response to the jail proposal, the Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization submitted a “community budget” to county officials. The interfaith group asked them to invest in re-entry services, health care and mental health facilities, job training, temporary housing services and mentoring and navigation services. It also moved people to contact county and state lawmakers and write letters to the state corrections board.
Walker said the community mobilization was a key. “We had organized so well and changed the narrative that we were welcoming people who have been incarcerated,” she said, adding that people began to recognize the relationships between mass incarceration and the increases in crime among people without access to housing and services.
Though the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Department touted in-custody services as a boon for the county, Richmond Mayor Tom Butt and Supervisor John Gioia said if money is available for such services, residents shouldn’t have to be arrested to access them.
The Richmond City Council voted to oppose the plan. Also, the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors’ vote fell short of approval, thanks to Gioia’s opposition. The rejection on both municipal and county levels doomed Sheriff Livingston’s proposal.
Walker said that unlike earlier efforts against jail expansion, the timing made winning hearts and minds easier. “If this had been five years ago, we wouldn’t have won,” she said. “We hadn’t changed enough mindsets and changed the dominant narrative enough. Once we built enough alliances and (could) bring system relationships to the table for a common goal, that’s what set Richmond apart.”