Lock Up the Vote: A New Jail May Never Fill Up with Inmates, but It'll Hold a Lot of Favors

At one point, the plan to build a new jail in downtown San Francisco had a clear impetus. The Hall of Justice lockup on Bryant Street is seismically unsound, so a big earthquake could mean an undue death sentence for those inside. Not to mention that the city would be out tens of millions trying to “relocate” surviving inmates, as Director of Capital Planning Brian Strong noted at a public safety hearing last week.

That's enough to induce a collective shudder. But it's not enough to quell the internecine battles that have flared up around the proposed jail. Once a necessity, it's become a political wedge.

Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi is aggressively pushing plans for a 640-bed site to supplant the 905 beds at the Hall of Justice — a figure already reduced to account for the city's declining prison population. Building it would require some $290 million in Certificates of Participation, a type of high-interest municipal bond that doesn't require voter approval. Add in the estimated $340 million in debt service, and the total cost approaches $630 million.

In January, Supervisor David Campos floated what he thought was a better solution: Build an even smaller jail. Campos wielded a report from budget analyst Harvey Rose, which showed that San Francisco could get by with a 384-bed facility and save $96 million in construction costs.

Campos' cheaper jail alternative creates yet another fault line in an already fractious debate. Improbably, District Attorney and former Republican George Gascón opposes the bigger jail, saying San Francisco has other options. Former Green Party stalwart Mirkarimi supports it, as did public defender Jeff Adachi, who says he's since changed his mind.

Thus, the conservative DA is arguing against over-incarceration, while two noted progressives are promoting a massive, costly jail as a humanitarian cause. Mirkarimi also has the example of San Mateo County lingering just 30 miles south. That county broke ground on its own $165 million jail in 2012, gambling on an $80 million state grant that was later denied. Given that San Francisco was refused the same grant last year, San Mateo seems like a bad example to emulate. But Mirkarimi wants to do just that.

Speaking at the January hearing, Mirkarimi claimed his reasons for wanting a bigger, costlier jail are purely altruistic. He worries that an overflow would require San Francisco to ship inmates out to another jail in San Bruno, several BART stops away from their families. That “sabotages a level of community that is already under threat in San Francisco,” the sheriff insisted.

But political observers believe Mirkarimi's motivations are far more calculated. The sheriff ostensibly hopes to run for office again, so he needs to protect his charges — sheriff's deputies — who will wring more jobs out of a bigger jail. The 640-bed building would require larger numbers of everything, including unionized construction jobs, which could translate into money from labor unions, which could be a ticket to re-election.

“That's his calculus,” University of San Francisco political researcher David Latterman says. (In an e-mail, Mirkarimi reiterated his humanitarian impulses to build the larger jail.)

So a big new jail in San Francisco may never be full of prisoners — but it could at least lock up some votes.

Correction: In a previous version of this story, we stated that Jeff Adachi supports Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi's proposal for a $290 million, 640-bed jail, based in part on his signing of an Aug. 29 letter to Mayor Ed Lee in pursuit of a state grant for the $290 million jail. Adachi now says he supports the smaller, 384-bed jail.

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