Projections of new county jail population raises hackles of activists who want no jail 

click to enlarge Ross Mirkarimi
  • Mike Koozmin/the S.F. Examiner
  • Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi speaks with an inmate at the San Francisco County Jail.
The gray monolithic block building of the Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant St. is one part police headquarters, one part courthouse and one part jail, among other things.

That jail – which houses the most violent of the county’s inmates in a confining series of hallways and cell blocks redolent of county jails everywhere – sits in contrast to the county’s newest modern jail in San Bruno.

Numerous changes are underway at 850 Bryant – including the fall relocation of police headquarters to Mission Bay – and in the not to distant future the building will most notably no longer hold prisoners.

In 2017 the county plans to build a brand new, $290 million jail adjacent to the Hall of Justice.

Much of the debate over the new building has been over how many beds it will have and hence how many prisoners, but some have also questioned the very need for a jail as The City’s inmate population continues to decline because of alternatives to incarceration.

That debate erupted again last week after the Office of the Controller released a report on the facility and how many beds it should have, among other projections.

“The Controller’s Office recommends constructing a replacement facility with between 63 and 229 jail beds to meet the forecasted need,” according to the report. The current Hall of Justice jail has 375 beds, with 905 more in San Bruno, where The City’s longer term inmates are housed. In total, the system has 2,515 beds.

That forecast comes during a time when the jail population has been in decline.

“Changes in policies, programs, or demographic trends may result in the jail population increasing from its present level,” according to the report. “The City should update the current jail forecast in July 2015 to ensure the replacement jail is correctly sized.”

Anti-incarceration groups took issue with the report’s conclusion, arguing The City should increase alternatives to jailing instead of building more jail cells, a point made in the past by some law enforcement officials, notably by Wendy S. Still, head of the city’s Adult Probation Department.

The controller’s projections, according to California United for a Responsible Budget, a group that opposes the current criminal justice system’s jailing policies, suggest that the report signals that efforts to reduce inmate populations in The City are coming to an end.

“The Controller’s report has many faults,” said Diana Zuñiga of CURB. “The most dangerous problem with the report is that it does not consider how San Francisco could invest in alternatives to locking people in jails, it provides neither incentive nor opportunity to build on the success of the last six years. Since 2008, we have reduced the jail population by over 30 percent. The Controller proposes we reverse that trend.”

The county’s five jail facilities currently house1,285 inmates as of the end of May and last year had the lowest number of daily average inmates – 1,428 -- since 1984.

Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi says he understands critics of the “lock-them-up-and-throw-away the-key” jailing philosophy, but disagrees with their assessment of the controller’s report, and their dire predictions of a sea change in The City jailing policies if a new jail is built.

San Francisco has been shrinking its jail population – and is one of the only counties in the country doing so – said Mirkarimi, and will most probably continue to do so. That does not mean no jail is needed in San Francisco, he added.

Last year he closed a whole floor of the jail in the Hall of Justice because of the horrible conditions there. Those same conditions – which he described as “shamefully bad” -- also exist in the remaining portions of the Hall of Justice jail, and he says it needs to be closed as well, which would leave San Francisco with little jail space in city limits aside from a facility on Seventh Street which houses mostly women.

For myriad reasons – from access to courts, visitors and services – The City needs a central facility where inmates can be humanely held and prepared for release, said Mirkarimi. He wants to model any new facility in The City on the San Bruno jail, which is the direction all modern jails should be moving in. The inmates have more room, better conditions, and can actually be rehabilitated.

A debate on how many beds should exist in the jail is healthy, he said, but the existence of a new jail should not be part of the debate.

Still, he admits that the actual number of beds at such a facility may in all probability change, since the overall trend in San Francisco has been a declining.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the jail population continues to drop,” he said.


Current jail population: 1,285

Population at its peak in 1993: 2,321

San Bruno: 709

Hall of Justice: 352

Seventh Street women’s jail: 215

San Francisco General Hospital: 9

The booking and release facility is a holding facility with no beds.

The average daily population in 2013 was the lowest since 1984.

About The Author

Jonah Owen Lamb

Jonah Owen Lamb

Born and raised on a houseboat in Sausalito, Lamb has written for newspapers in New York City, Utah and the San Joaquin Valley. He was most recently an editor at the San Luis Obispo Tribune for nearly three years. He has written for The S.F. Examiner since 2013 and covers criminal justice and planning.
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