The Problem Isn’t the Sheriff — It’s the Jail

The problem isn’t the sheriff — it’s the jail

By Andrew Szeto
Last month, reports emerged on the “gladiator-style” fights between prisoners orchestrated by San Francisco sheriff deputies inside county jails.

This outrageously callous and cruel behavior by the four deputies implicated in Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s investigation is a gross mismanagement by Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi’s office. It has led to rightful outrage and disbelief that such inhuman acts could happen under our city’s watch.

But such revelations are also indicative of a larger systemic problem of institutionalized racism, criminalization and police violence. The spectacle of the gladiator fights is itself an extension of the inherently violent relationship between prisoners and guards, where one class of people is subjected to the routine and structurally enforced violence of another.

If we are to only blame the sheriff and his department’s “culture of permissiveness” for the brutal fighting ring, as the San Francisco Chronicle report and its follow-up article March 31 suggests, we misrepresent and ignore a significant precondition for such violence: the jail itself.

We know that blacks currently comprise 56 percent of the jail population in the county, while they account for less than 4 percent of the city population. We also know that about 80 percent of prisoners are pretrial, meaning they have not yet been sentenced to any time and are only there because they cannot afford bail. A majority of the jail population is also mentally ill.

Replacing some bad apples is not going to change these statistics. Individuals such as Mirkarimi, the deputies, and especially Scott Neu, who has previously been accused of sexually assaulting prisoners, are no doubt despicable. But it is the reality of violence, control and racism that our current jail system perpetuates that should ultimately be the focus of our attention, not any particular individual.

No new jail.

A new $278 million project to rebuild the county jails and the Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant St. is currently being spearheaded by the Sheriff’s Department, with promises of more modern and safe facilities. There is unanimous agreement among elected officials and the community that 850 Bryant must be closed because it is seismically unfit, decrepit and needs to be torn down.

The proposed jail will have fewer beds and include a special facility for transgender people. It has been advertised as “good for families, good for trans women and good for San Francisco,” the same language that counties across the state are using to sell the newest wave of imprisonment under the guise of providing services.

Yet in light of the recent reminder of such violence and brutality, how are we to believe that a new jail — like a new sheriff — will be a solution? San Francisco’s imprisonment rate is at about half the state’s average and has continued to drop. This decrease, along with the fact that the county’s jail capacity generally hovers at around 50 percent, makes a new jail completely unnecessary.

In addition, the $300 million can be better spent on long-term supportive housing, better mental health care and expanding diversion programs — real solutions that have contributed to the declining jail population and don’t rely on building more cages.

There is growing opposition against the new jail, with supervisors Jane Kim and London Breed being the most vocal elected officials to question the necessity of spending close to $300 million on it.

Since 2013, the No SF Jail Coalition, a group of homeless advocates, transgender prisoner supporters and community members opposed to incarceration have been working to stop the construction of the jail as well as the associated criminalization of people that is leading to their arrests.

If our elected officials, particularly Mayor Ed Lee, are outraged by the “gladiator-style” fighting, then the logical next step would be to intervene to make sure that the city does not waste resources on a new building that is entrenched in that same violence.

Andrew Szeto is a member of the No SF Jail Coalition and is a tenant organizer in San Francisco.

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