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San Francisco Civil Grand Jury Cites Continuing Jail Deficiencies

by John E. Dannenberg

In November 2005, the jurors of the San Francisco Grand Jury inspected city and county jails and found longstanding unremediated problems of inadequate budgets, staffing shortages, overcrowding and high (40%) recidivism rates. The Jury recommended that overcrowding and physical plant problems be promptly cured, staffing of the Sheriff?s Department be increased and that a coordinated approach to post-release prisoner services be undertaken to reduce recidivism.

The Jury?s data collection came from reviews of prisoner grievances, meal menus and prisoner orientation handbooks, followed by a one-day inspection of seven of the ten facilities. Jurors were served a prisoner lunch and interviewed random prisoners at each lockup. They noted that the jails housed 2,200 prisoners, of whom 55% were African-American, 21% Latino, 19% Caucasian and 5% Asian. 87% were male. 75% were unsentenced, of whom half were released within 96 hours on recognizance or bail. 25% of the population were convicted offenders serving less than 15 months.

Many of the facility problems earlier ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge were soon to be alleviated at County Jail # 3 in San Bruno, when a new jail opens in July 2006. This will also relieve overcrowding in women?s facilities where four women share one cell, with cots 24? apart.
However, Hall of Justice jail air quality, already noted unacceptable ten years ago, remained so. A four phase plan to overhaul the HVAC system was only three quarters done, and it was estimated that it will, take another 10-15 years before a proposed replacement Hall of Justice will be completed, with proper air handling provisions.

The Jury found adequate budgeted staff positions, but too many vacancies. New hires are not even keeping up with retirements. The lack of staff contributes to excessive overtime costs and prisoner violence (247 assaults in the past year). Food was described as ?monotonous? but dietarily adequate.

Audit of the Inmate Welfare Fund, which Penal Code § 4025 requires be spent for the ?benefit, education and welfare of the inmates confined within the jail,? showed expenditures as follows: in 2004, 60-65% on pre-release programs and other benefits and 35-40% on staff salaries, benefits and overhead; in 2005, 50% on each.

Sheriff Hennessey has instituted several novel jail programs, including acupuncture, high school classes, organic gardening, yoga and a Tree Corps that plants and tends trees in San Francisco. The Jurors also noted Charter High School diploma classes, vocational training, and substance abuse recovery, violence prevention and alternative work programs in place.

Post-release programs, according to a Washington State study, can lower recidivism rates by 8.2%. At an annual cost of $12,000 per prisoner, the Jury concluded that the savings of even a 0.5% reduction in recidivism would approach $3 million per year, while indirect benefits to the community would be far greater.

The Jury recommended that the present Hall of Justice cooling system repairs be completed by the end of 2006 and that the Sheriff fill open staff positions and increase post-release programs to cut recidivism. See: San Francisco Jails: An Investigative Visit, S.F. 2005-2006 Civil Grand Jury, June 26, 2006.

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