San Francisco Supervisor proposes permanently shutting down troubled county jail

Last week, San Francisco Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer introduced a plan that aims to permanently shut down County Jail #4 — a facility that advocates and politicians say is in poor condition. 

Six out of 11 members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors support Fewer. She cites the current coronavirus pandemic as a reason to move on her plan. Jail and prison officials throughout the country, in the past few weeks, have approved the release of inmates in hopes of stemming the spread of the virus. In County Jail #4, one deputy sheriff tested positive.

The jail is housed in a city-owned building, located at 850 Bryant Street. The building has been considered seismically unsafe since the 1990s. Currently, there are around 300 prisoners in County Jail #4.

The county also had faced a lawsuit from over 141 current and former inmates, citing cruel and unusual punishment, due process violations and negligence. The lawsuit describes raw sewage, including feces and hazardous toxins leaking from the floor. The lawsuit claims that to solve the problem, jail officials built a “trap” in the pipes, which caused even more leakage. The inmates reported waking up in the middle of the night to raw sewage, and that they were forced to clean up without proper safety equipment.” 

Meanwhile, inmates also had to live, sleep and eat next to the waste. Inmates reported rashes, injuries and headaches.

Fewer’s proposal is facing resistance from Sheriff Paul Miyamoto, who told The San Francisco Chronicle that Fewer’s plan, as written, “is not only irresponsible, it is a threat to public safety.” There are three open county jails in the city that allow enough space for social distancing — closing this jail would mean losing 1,000 beds that would make inmates closer together. 

“However, we remain open and committed to working with Supervisor Fewer’s office on a responsible plan to close County Jail # 4 while maintaining public safety,” he said.

Prior to the pandemic, there was heavy debate surrounding 850 Bryant. Despite general agreement that the building is unsafe and should be closed, advocates, policymakers, and city officials disagreed on what to do with those inside the jail. The county rejected building a new jail. Some suggested transferring inmates to other counties, like Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County. But critics said that Santa Rita Jail is also in poor and dangerous conditions. In October, San Francisco Mayor London Breed said the city building where County Jail #4 is located will close by 2021, and that a “future justice camp” would be created there. According to the mayor, the building will become a campus for a rehabilitation and treatment center.

 Activists, like the organization No New SF Jail, hope to see investment in community-building resources. According to the organization’s recommendations given to the city, health services run by local organizations would better serve the community rather than the probation department. One of their suggestions was to build a transformative justice center in Tenderloin and Bayview — the two districts that see the most of their residents in the county jail population. They also suggest investing in living options and cooperative housing for those with substance abuse and experiencing homelessness.


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