Broken Camera Theory: S.F. Jail Has Surveillance Problem

In December, opponents of America's incarceration state celebrated a major victory when the Board of Supervisors voted down a $380 million plan to replace the city's aging and increasingly decrepit jails in the Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant St.

After all, they reasoned, with San Francisco pursuing incarceration alternatives, the average daily jail population has decreased to about 1,300 people. (Capacity is more than 2,400, though two of the city's six jails are currently closed.) So who needs a brand-new jail, when there are “newer” jails on Seventh Street and in San Bruno?

At least on Seventh Street, the answer is “us.” Sometime in summer of 2014, the security cameras and control panels at County Jails No. 1 and 2 — the main intake center for the jail, and the new, pod-style, 392-bed jail, respectively — started failing.

That led then-Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi to declare an official state of emergency, which allowed the city to make $1.1 million in quick fixes. Things are better, but still not entirely secure: According to a Jan. 22 letter to city officials from current Sheriff Vicki Hennessy, “many of the basic security functions of the facility are still not complete.”

Nobody has escaped from the “compromised” Jail No. 2 — the possibly cartel-connected inmate who successfully ran away from a since-fired sheriff's deputy while taking out the trash last March did so at the problematic Hall of Justice. But the jail still needs a load of work to be totally secure. Over the next year, the alarm system, the security cameras, and the electronics that control the doors will all be replaced, at a still-unknown cost, according to documents obtained via a public records request.

Buttonholed at City Hall on Monday, Hennessy deferred to her staffers to provide comment. Eileen Hirst, Hennessy's chief of staff, said that the department doesn't know how much the rest of the fixes will cost.

Now all that's left is the bill. The city will pay whatever the two contractors — Colorado-based Sierra Detention Systems and San Jose's Alta Consulting Services — bill them. Because of the “sensitive nature” of compromised jail security, the repair contracts will not be put out to bid.

Part of the reason for the continued emergency is political. Back in 2014, Mirkarimi — declared politically toxic after the much-publicized domestic violence incident with his wife in 2012 — pushed for more funding to fix the cameras “beyond triage.” Unfortunately, he was turned down, he told SF Weekly. Maybe Hennessy will have more luck getting her jail fixed in less than 18 months.

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