An abstract artistic rendering of the U.S. depicted as a pig lying underground and consuming a jail.
(Enera Wilson)
 Comments on the potential use of the Glenn Dyer Jail as a homeless shelter.

When the problem of homelessness was in its infancy and jails were expanding to greet new “clients” each day, the issue concerning the growing number of unsheltered people on the street was practically invisible. Years later, two wars overseas, and a financial meltdown created The Great Recession. In the wake of these events, thousands of people were forced to live on the streets, and federal, state and local governments seemingly turned a blind eye to the swelling problem of homelessness, while prisoners remained immune to it. 

Fast forward to the present, Oakland has an empty jail, and people are still living on the street. The solution? Lock ‘em up. Sort of. Officials want to house the homeless in a lockup facility. 

“If approved, it could be the first jail facility to be turned into a homeless shelter in California,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Some government officials may see that as a respectable solution to what has been a slow-moving crisis in play for more than a decade. 

“This is an incredible opportunity because it’s this huge piece of land in the middle of downtown Oakland with multiple buildings that could be redeveloped,” said Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, the Chronicle reported. “I do think given the severity of the crisis, we do have to think outside the box.” 

How is placing someone in a jail box thinking outside the box? Thinking inside the box is what tough-on-crime pundits and government officials have been doing for decades. A simple name change from prisoner and jail to homeless and shelter raises a question: What’s the “altruistic” motive behind such an idea. And why now? Will this be the new trend as mass incarceration decreases? Is this what government officials plan to do with the country’s surplus labor to keep themselves employed?

No one will argue that homeless people are in need of immediate shelter, especially in Oakland where people living on the street has increased by 47 percent over the last two years, according to a study reported by the Oakland Post.I’m not certain anyone asked the homeless what they want, although I’m fairly certain some would welcome the opportunity to be housed in a safe and clean environment, especially those with children. Then too, perhaps officials and city leaders have embraced the maxim “beggars can’t be choosers.” 

However, the downtown jail’s proximity to Oakland’s police station, squad car parking lot, court building and district attorney’s office creates a backdrop of state repressive power that may traumatize men, women and children already suffering from negative experiences with the criminal justice system.

“The last thing I’d want is to be surrounded by agents of repression.”

It’s no different from what’s done to prisoners. When I arrived at the prison gate with life sentences (with the possibility of parole) more than 20 years ago, I knew my term was a political decree that tacitly meant life without any possibility to obtain freedom – death by prison. “Lifers,” as we’re often called, back then didn’t discuss half-way houses or transition homes because they were virtually nonexistent as most of us were stuck. 

Now that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has a federal mandate to reduce its prison population and cap it at 137.5 percent of design capacity, more lifers are paroling. That’s ushered in transition homes for parolees, now a staple of post incarceration. 

This is the new trend: disappear a city’s eyesores, like those impacted by the onslaught of gentrification, then create housing for them if not enough people are locked up. But what happens when the “no vacancy” sign goes up on the jail and crime spikes?

“Immoral,” “inhumane” and “wrong” is what some say about the idea to place the homeless in a high-rise jail. Because the jail can house more than 800 people, Oakland’s Mayor Libby Schaaf said the answer is “obvious” the homeless should be housed there. 

I suppose it’s an obvious answer if the tax dollars will remain in Oakland for such a project. After more than 20 years of incarceration, I could live in a jail as a condition for my “freedom.” But, given the choice, the last thing I’d want is to be surrounded by state agents of repression. 

And because many homeless are formerly incarcerated, it’s easy to understand how they may share my sentiments. So let’s be clear and not dress up the issue as if this proposed housing option is a condominium with “a beautiful view of the bay and downtown,” as The Chronicle reported Sgt. Ray Kelly saying. It’s a shelter, but it’s a jail nonetheless.

Kevin D. Sawyer is a San Francisco native. He is the Associate Editor for the San Quentin News, an inmate run newspaper produced out of San Quentin State Prison. He is a 2016 recipient of The James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism.