More than 200 people signed a petition or sent letters asking the Board of Supervisors to not interfere with Sheriff Paul Miyamoto’s ability to keep jail inmates and the general public safe during the coronavirus pandemic. Please, they asked, just let the sheriff do his job.
Their voice was heard and Miyamoto was able to get amendments added to legislation he initially said was “a threat to public safety” because it wouldn’t allow him to add beds to remaining jails upon the closure of an old jail.
Everyone, including the sheriff, agrees the dilapidated and seismically unfit County Jail №4 should close. Supervisors passed a law May 5 to close it six months sooner than expected. Thanks to the advocacy of Miyamoto’s supporters, the law won’t interfere with the sheriff’s ability to effectively do his job. The Examiner reported that he retains the “flexibility to accommodate any future fluctuations in the jail population.”
But why did people have to send letters asking supervisors to let the sheriff do his job in the middle of a pandemic?
Before the coronavirus crisis hit, Sheriff Miyamoto was trying to figure out how to safely close County Jail №4 by a July 2021 deadline while ensuring there was enough room in San Francisco’s remaining jails to handle the overflow.
Miyamoto runs the jails and is responsible for the well-being of inmates. The arrival of coronavirus became a very real and imminent threat for both inmates and deputies sharing such close quarters. That’s why Miyamoto quickly worked with health officials to reduce the jail population. Health officials know the number needed for proper social distancing and the sheriff knows which inmates are most dangerous to society and need to stay in custody. Miyamoto came up with a plan to release inmates with a high risk of infection and those with less than 60 days left on their sentences. The sheriff’s final number matched the recommendation of health officials.
Everyone was doing their job and handling the crisis as they should.
Yet in the middle of it all, Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer introduced legislation to speed up the previously scheduled closure of County Jail №4 under the guise of concern over COVID-19.
Sheriff Miyamoto said in a statement that Fewer’s legislation was “irresponsible” because it wouldn’t allow him to reconfigure existing jails to accommodate inmates from the closed jail.
The draft legislation called for no more than 1,044 total inmates in San Francisco — which would be 90 percent capacity of the remaining two jails. The law would forbid adding new beds to the remaining jails or transferring inmates to a jail in another county.
Sheriff Miyamoto argued that gave him no margin to deal with unforeseen circumstances like the current coronavirus crisis.
Miyamoto sent a letter to Fewer saying it was “reckless” to predict future jail capacity based on today’s numbers, which were reduced through early releases as a precaution against coronavirus.
“I am unable to assess how many beds will be needed next week, much less commit to a fixed bed capacity going forward,” Miyamoto said. “If this legislation becomes law and this pandemic is not over, or if other unforeseen circumstances arise, I will not have the flexibility to safely distance inmates to protect their health, the health of the staff and the health of the community.”Many politicians wanted to close jails long before COVID-19 with the goal of reducing incarceration rates. The debate over the role of incarceration in the criminal justice system is one that should be heard. But it is a separate issue from how jails must handle today’s pandemic.
Miyamoto emphasized that simply releasing an inmate won’t guarantee they will be safe from coronavirus. In some cases, he said a jail could be a safer shelter if the inmate might infect others or would be homeless with nowhere to go on the outside.
“The last thing we would want to do is release them into a community where there are verified cases of COVID-19 without a place to stay,” he told the .
Then on May 5, Miyamoto announced an inmate who tested negative for coronavirus while in custody became infected after being released.
The person “returned to jail less than two weeks later on separate charges and has now tested positive,” Miyamoto said. “This is the fourth time since January 2020 that the subject has been booked into custody.”
Miyamoto also pointed out that the population in San Francisco’s jail is more dangerous than jails in neighboring counties. He told the that most inmates have been booked on or convicted of serious or violent charges.
That means deciding who to release will have an effect on public safety.
Everyone agrees the rundown jail at the Hall of Justice is no longer suitable for inmates. Miyamoto said he wanted to follow a “responsible plan to close County Jail №4 while maintaining public safety.”
Miyamoto and his predecessor Vicki Hennessy both wanted to replace the jail with a state-of-the-art facility. A new jail would better serve the needs of inmates since the current facility doesn’t have space for counseling and other programs.
But it was the Board of Supervisors who turned down an $80 million state grant in 2016 to build a new jail. Instead, they preferred to let inmates remain in the decrepit jail until it was slated for demolition in 2021. The larger political agenda was to reduce the number of jails so there would be less beds for prosecutors to fill.
“With no replacements planned, this leaves the city unprepared and with no capacity to manage any unforeseen changes in the criminal justice system,” Miyamoto said.
Push for amendments
Miyamoto warned that Fewer’s originally drafted legislation would “prohibit recommendations our office has made to relieve the pressure on the criminal justice system that closing County Jail №4 will create.”
If he isn’t allowed to build a replacement jail, Miyamoto said he must have the ability to reconfigure San Francisco’s two remaining jails to meet public safety needs.
“We cannot legislate bed space away unless we are legislating away criminal acts that require arrests and custody of persons in the interests of public safety,” Miyamoto said. “As written, the Supervisor’s legislation is not only irresponsible, it is a threat to public safety.”
That’s why the group Stop Crime SF called on members to support Sheriff Miyamoto’s attempt to amend the legislation. Closing the jail sooner than scheduled is a noble cause, but not if it limits the sheriff’s ability to run the jails safely and effectively.
The petition and letter writing campaign was successful. County Jail 4 will close six months sooner than expected and Sheriff Miyamoto will retain the flexibility to accommodate more inmates in the remaining jails, if needed. These are the key amendments that passed:
- While the law still prohibits adding new beds “through construction, renovation, or reopening of another facility to replace County Jail 4,” the language was amended to permit the consideration of adding beds through rehabilitation of “an existing facility like County Jail 2.”
- Another important amendment says that an appointed subcommittee created by the law will only “consider” the development of jail population reduction policies rather than impose them on the elected sheriff. This allows the sheriff to continue to hold the authority voters gave him.
- The subcommittee must also create a “plan to prepare for an increase in the average daily population above 1,044 after closure of Jail №4.” This is important because the sheriff said unforeseen circumstances could force him to deal with a prison population more than the number the law cited as the maximum allowed in San Francisco.
- Finally, an amendment was added to consider measures to “protect public health in the jails.” This helps the sheriff more effectively deal with the coronavirus pandemic because he needs to be able to space inmates out to avoid infection. The sheriff said he cannot release every prisoner because some are a danger to society and he must advocate for a balance between public health and public safety.
More commitments needed
While Sheriff Miyamoto was able to work with supervisors to amend the legislation, he did not get everything he asked for. That’s why Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who represents the Marina in District 2, was the lone no vote on the legislation.
The amended law is much better than what was originally written, which would have interfered with the sheriff’s ability to effectively do his job. Now, Miyamoto has some flexibility to respond to any changes in the jail population and the need for space when dealing with COVID19.
But it’s important to note that Miyamoto will still need a commitment from supervisors to support requests to rehabilitate existing jails should the need arise for more beds. The rehabilitation must happen in anticipation of the need, because an unsafe situation can quickly transpire if the jails are not properly prepared. That means Miyamoto will likely need to rally community support again to ensure he can keep inmates and the public safe.
Joel Engardio is the vice president of Stop Crime SF. Joel is also a candidate for supervisor on San Francisco’s westside in District 7. Learn more about his views on local issues at engardio.com/issues
Originally published at https://www.engardio.com on May 6, 2020.