Outgoing SF sheriff Hennessey reflects on time and punishment 

LENDING A HAND Sheriff Michael Hennessey, who moved to The City in 1970 from a small town in Iowa, gave legal assistance to inmates before becoming sheriff. - JOSEPH SCHELL/SPECIAL TO THE SF EXAMINER
  • Joseph Schell/Special to The SF Examiner
  • LENDING A HAND Sheriff Michael Hennessey, who moved to The City in 1970 from a small town in Iowa, gave legal assistance to inmates before becoming sheriff.

The popular image of a sheriff is one of a hard-bitten crime fighter. But for the past three decades, San Francisco has had a sheriff who was part lawman, part social worker — a crime fighter who cared about the welfare of the people he put behind bars.

After 32 years in office, Sheriff Michael Hennessey is hanging up his holsters Sunday. His accomplishments include creating the nation’s only jail-based charter school, where inmates can earn a high school degree or GED; a jail halfway-house model for substance abuse treatment, even for violent prisoners; and a once-
controversial program to give condoms to inmates, begun in the 1980s at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

Even though he is The City’s most enduring elected political figure, few San Franciscans would probably recognize him walking down the street — and that seems to suit Hennessey just fine.

“I didn’t run for sheriff to get into politics,” Hennessey, 64, said in a recent interview. “I ran for sheriff to do something about the county jails.”

On Wednesday, Hennessey capped off his career by tearing down the old San Francisco County Jail located in San Bruno, which he derided in the interview as “a relic from the 1930s.”

“It was a really bad way to house people, and almost impossible to supervise them,” he said of the jail, which was notorious for its escapes and a brutal rape of an inmate in 1989, which helped attract attention to the deteriorating conditions and overcrowding there.

From a small town in Iowa that “had neither a lawyer or a cop,” Hennessey came to The City in 1970 and attended law school at the University of San Francisco. After graduating, he settled down in The City and provided legal assistance to inmates on civil matters. It was during that time he witnessed the deplorable conditions of the San Bruno jail, which he vowed to close when he first campaigned to become sheriff in 1979. His tenure got off to a rocky start.

Four months after being elected on a “stop the jailbreaks” platform, Hennessey presided over “the biggest jailbreak in the history of San Francisco.” Thirteen inmates escaped from the Hall of Justice, he explains on his personal website, which is devoted to the colorful history of the office. An Examiner headline at the time labeled Hennessey “Escape-goat.”

Jail safety has improved under his watch, Hennessey said.

Recently, Hennessey fought to defend San Francisco’s sanctuary law protecting undocumented immigrants accused of nonfelonies from a new fingerprint-reporting program linking county jails with federal immigration authorities. After receiving federal assurances that Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers on jail inmates are only requests, Hennessey now honors only a limited amount of misdemeanor detainers.

One major regret?

“I’ve never been able to figure out in the county jail how to create a good vocational program,” Hennessey said.

On Sunday, Hennessey will officially hand the reins over to Ross Mirkarimi, whom he endorsed in November’s election.

“He’s going to have a steep learning curve at first,” Hennessey said. “I did, I had a horrible first couple of years. And he’s better prepared to be sheriff than I was when I became sheriff, I’ll say that.”


Progress made in past decades

  • Built three jails — one in San Bruno, opened in 1989, another at San Francisco’s Hall of Justice, opened in 1994, and a third in San Bruno, opened in 2006. Demolition of the old San Bruno jail began Wednesday
  • Opened first charter school in a county jail, graduating inmates with high school diplomas or GEDs, started in 2003
  • Embraced innovative substance abuse programs in a halfway-house model: program for female inmates began in 1991, for male inmates in 1992, and for violent male prisoners in 1997
  • Distributed condoms in jails beginning in 1987
  • Diversified staff; as of December 2011, 71 percent of jail employees were minorities, and 17 percent were women

Source: San Francisco Sheriff’s Department

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