Three decades ago, Sunny Schwartz says San Francisco Sheriff Mike Hennessey reached out to her with a simple message: He didn’t want San Francisco’s jails to be “human warehouses.”
Schwartz, who served for many years as Hennessey’s director of programming, oversaw the establishment of a vast array of social, educational, and vocational classes for inmates. A longtime jail worker recalled how, 20 years ago, you’d see 60 guys in the Roads to Recovery addiction treatment pod, with “six or seven hours a day” of programming: “You’d have relapse prevention, parenting classes, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.”
Nothing like that is happening now. “Now,” the longtime jail worker continues, inmates “get a packet on anger management.” The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department last week confirmed to Mission Local that “most programming at CJ3” — County Jail No. 3 in San Bruno, which houses the overwhelming majority of San Francisco’s nearly 800 inmates — “has stopped due to staff shortages.”
A generation ago, the city’s jails also moved away from the Cool Hand Luke–model of a guard in a parapet watching the inmates from afar and adopted “direct supervision.” The deputies were in the pods with the inmates, interacting with them. “They were inside the inmates’ living quarters,” explains Schwartz. “Instead of being in an outside tier reading Mad Magazine while people are beating the shit out of each other. It’s very fundamental but it was pretty novel. It shouldn’t be.”
But, due to staff shortages, direct supervision may once more become a novelty. At County Jail No. 3, a pilot program was initiated on June 29 to, in the department’s own words, “reduce the number of required staffing positions.” Instead of direct supervision — which calls for a deputy to be placed in both of the adjoining “pods” of 48 inmates each — a single deputy would observe all 96 inmates in Pod 5 from the “Crow’s Nest.”
In other words, back to the parapet.
Because it would be logistically impossible for one deputy locked in the Crow’s Nest to oversee nearly 100 inmates ambling around, the prisoners’ “walk time” outside their cells has been severely curtailed. Based on the literature explaining the pilot program, walk time has been reduced to 45 minutes — 45 minutes for inmates to shower, visit the library, stretch their legs, whatever.
Deputies working inside tell me that, yes, that’s 45 minutes a day, meaning inmates in this pilot program are in their cells for the other 23 hours and 15 minutes.
Inmates in other pods are getting more walk time — but, it seems, far less than what was once common. Deputies who worked CJ3 even only a few years back tell me that, even relatively recently, prisoners could walk around for about five to five-and-a-half hours in the afternoons, and perhaps nine hours total during the day.
To be clear, none of this appears to be intentionally punitive. It appears to simply be the outcome of a department that has been shedding workers for years faster than it can rehire them, and has fallen well below mandatory minimum staffing levels.
But, for those feeling the effects, that’s a difference without a distinction. It’s a bad combination when prisoners are held in tiny cells for the vast majority of every day without programming to not only pass the time but to make them healthier and more functional people. In-person family visits and religious services, too, are not currently available. The jail, in short, has devolved into a human warehouse. By the way, CJ3 is currently suffering through its worst covid outbreak yet.
And it doesn’t require a soothsayer to predict that a likely outcome in San Francisco is for more inmates to soon be shunted into the city’s jails — and into these conditions.
“The new DA Brooke Jenkins’ promise to increase prosecution i.e., of fentanyl pushers, as stated in her press interviews, means an increase in incarceration,” writes Ken Lomba, the president of the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association.
“And we don’t have the deputy staff to properly run the jail.”
On July 18, the deputies’ union sent the Sheriffs’ Department a cease and desist letter regarding the pilot program. Among other complaints, the letter noted “less walking time for inmates, which will lead to more inmate aggression, outbursts, medical needs, and hospital runs (again, in turn increasing the potential risk to deputies who manage these inmates).”
You do not have to be a bleeding-heart liberal to see trouble brewing here. Regardless of what you think about fentanyl and deterrence and accountability, it is problematic to funnel more people into a jail system enduring these problems.
On top of that, it is unclear how this city’s drug and property crime problems will be solved by putting accused and convicted criminals into jails where they have little in the way of substance abuse treatment or educational, behavioral or vocational programming.
“The guys getting tossed in jail? They’re just tossed in jail; there are no quality programs at San Francisco jails,” sums up one longtime worker here. “What do they do with their time? If you’re incarcerated you sit around and play cards and dominos and tell war stories about what you did on the street. What do you think you’re going to do when they say you can go home? You’ll go back to what you’ve been thinking about the whole time you’re in jail.”
A former deputy who is now working in the private sector tells Mission Local he often recognizes some of his “former custodies” attempting to pilfer from his new places of business. The Sheriff’s Department, he sums up, did not “give them the tools to move on in life.”
It’s a deeply frustrating situation for the department’s veterans. San Francisco’s jail population is a third of what it was a generation ago, and longtime employees tell me that the deputies inside its jails are more polite, caring and humane than their predecessors. This is a department that, in the past, had its problems. But it does not seem that, in 2022, anybody is going out of their way to be cruel. Yet, with far less walk time and severe reductions in programming, it’s hard to say that conditions here are better than they were in the past.
“We’re going backwards,” laments Lomba. “We’re reducing inmates’ liberties within the jail.”
Every union wants management to hire more workers. But it’s hard to argue with Lomba’s union here: The Department in May was down 176 sworn staffers, and hiring has not been brisk. As we noted earlier this month, the department’s hiring goals are unlikely to keep up with projected attrition.
As such, an astounding 25 percent of work hours are done on overtime — during an era with some of the lowest jail counts in history. Deputies are mandated to work so much overtime — three mandatory 16-hour shifts in a five-day period, deputies say, is par for the course — that some opt to sleep in a communal room at the jail annex. Others live in RVs parked in a lot outside the jail.
Earlier this month, we wrote that lockdowns in which inmates are restricted to their cells due to staff shortages are a regular occurrence at the jails. The Sheriff’s Department has now provided us statistics telling us how regular: 44 lockdowns in the first six months of 2022. One of those lockdowns prevented lawyer Yolanda Huang from seeing a client; she was told they did not have the manpower to transport the inmate from his cell to the visiting area.
“If we believe chickens should be cage-free, we need to ask: What are we doing to these human beings?” she asks. If San Francisco does indeed move to increase incarceration levels — and fails to address the troubling conditions already plaguing its sparsely filled jails — “then we’re going back to barbaric treatment of people.”
Again, one needn’t be a bleeding-heart to see problems here. And one needn’t be altruistic, either. “It makes the staff less safe,” Huang continues. “One day they will all be released. And what happens to us when they are more damaged than when they came in?”
This city, it seems, is determined to find out.
Programming at CJ3, per the Sheriff’s Department:
Our staffing issues have had the most impact on CJ#3. In the past few weeks, most programming at CJ3 has stopped due to staff shortages.
· Five Keys teachers and program staff have been limited to speaking with clients one-on-one.
· Staff from the Veterans, One Family, Substance Abuse Treatment Program and Violence Prevention Program can only see clients individually. Our Violence Prevention Program had been utilizing tablets for groups throughout the pandemic, but this is not currently happening while the facility is undergoing infrastructure improvements that will allow all incarcerated persons to have tablets.
· The One Family Program continues to provide video visits for parents and children and has facilitated one contact visit. There have been several housing units in quarantine due to COVID which has halted individual sessions with clients.
· The SF Public Library has been dropping off books that are binned for distribution by SFSO staff.
· Faith-based organizations continue to provide religious services via zoom – approximately 52 sessions per week.
· Our Stanford Lecture series, which happens in the evening when staffing is a little better, was able to successfully complete the spring semester program on July 1st. They did two classes in two different housing units.
· There is currently a City College correspondence course being offered to students.
From the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, July 21
· Due to COVID-19 prevention measures, the corridor classrooms at CJ#2 were shuttered at the beginning of the pandemic. This started as a COVID prevention protocol but the classrooms have remained closed due to staffing challenges. Currently all classes/groups including Five Keys High School classes, substance abuse treatment groups, and DV survivor groups take place in the housing area’s multi-purpose room.
· We’ve had two parent/child contact visits for incarcerated moms which was coordinated by the One Family Program; their staff meets one-on-one with participants and facilitates additional video visits for the children.
· The SF Public Library regularly distributes books.
· Faith-based organizations continue to provide religious services via zoom – approximately 30 sessions per week.
· City College classes are offered as correspondence courses…
· The Mentoring Men’s Movement has been meeting individually with clients and facilitating groups via zoom with clients in both jails.
From the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, July 21