Supes approve funding request for jail construction

Pub date October 22, 2013
WriterRebecca Bowe
SectionPolitics Blog

“A Costco warehouse with metal bunk beds” is how Matt Freeman of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department described one of the county’s outmoded jail facilities, speaking at a meeting in City Hall today (Tue/22). At its meeting, San Francisco Board of Supervisors cleared the way for the Sheriff and the Department of Public Works to request $80 million in state funding to be put toward the construction of a modernized jail.

The new facility would replace seismically vulnerable 1950s era jails that are slated for demolition as part of a larger Hall of Justice overhaul. However, some supervisors voiced reservations about the plan.

As the Guardian recently reported, plans for the $290 million jail rebuild have drawn criticism from community advocates who question the use of resources that could be spent on programs to help people stay out of the criminal justice system.

Sup. Eric Mar, who refused to endorse the grant application at a recent Budget & Finance Committee meeting, piped up at the beginning of this meeting to say he’d had a change of heart. Evidently, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi and some others from the Sheriff’s Department took him on a tour of the San Bruno jail, the county’s most modern facility, to show him the difference between an outmoded jail and one designed with rehabilitative programming in mind.

“I see now that the need is really critical, for safety for inmates but also … a seismically safe and modern jail,” Mar said. “I’m convinced now that it’s really about … supporting anti-recidivism and rehabilitation programs. I really appreciate the sheriff and his staff for opening my eyes.”

But Sup. David Campos was not yet entirely sold on the need for a new jail. “I am not in a position to say that I support the building of this facility,” he said, but said he could be open the possibility after studying the details. “I do acknowledge that I have a bias – I would rather spend less money building a jail than building other things that I think are better investments for our city. That’s not to say I don’t want the jail population to be taken care of. I clearly do.” His office has requested a hearing on this topic, which will be held in early December.

Sup. John Avalos said he too had found it “difficult to support a jail altogether,” but noted that a debate on that decision would come at a later time. “This is just making sure that we have an opportunity to receive state funding if we decide to rebuild,” he said.

In the end, the request to submit an $80 million grant application for state funding was approved without opposition. But the preliminary discussion suggests that a broader debate over San Francisco’s jail rebuild is on the horizon, and it’s an issue where typical political allies won’t necessarily see eye-to-eye. At the same time, it’s a big financial commitment. According to City Controller Ben Rosenfield, the total cost could be in excess of $500 million after financing is factored in.