Plan to Shutter 850 Bryant Revived at City Hall

For years debates have swirled over what to do with the leaky, crumbling county jail and courthouse, which is in such bad shape that some fear building inspectors will shut it down.

The ongoing argument over what to do with the crumbling Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant St. was brought back into the spotlight this week, as Supervisor Matt Haney requested the city begin taking steps to shut down the building, for good. 

“I am asking the Sheriff and the City Administrator to present a plan by with detailed data to close 850 Bryant and County Jail 4,” Haney announced during Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. “Shockingly there is no plan or process in place for us to close this facility.  It’s urgent that we change that, and develop a plan for the most effective, safe and practical way to close this jail.”

It was suggested the building be demolished in 1996, and in the 23 years since, the situation inside has only become more dire. Between the exploding toilets, sewage leaking through the ceilings, rat infestations, and asbestos, it’s no wonder that the Public Defenders’ office fled to another building years ago. The District Attorney’s office is on its way out this summer to a new location on Rhode Island Street, which cost $8 million to renovate, and a whopping $4 million a year to rent. 

Add in the pending lawsuits filed against the city and county by inmates over the sordid conditions, and it’s clear the cost of keeping 850 Bryant St. open has become exorbitant. 

Soon, it’s possible even the city itself could step in to shut it. “One city official told me that the building is so obviously unsafe, and widely understood to be so, that our own Department of Building Inspections could soon ‘red tag’ it and close it themselves at any moment,” Haney said. 

But few politicians in our fairly liberal city are interested in building a new jail to replace 850 Bryant St., and here’s where the biggest challenge arises: In order to shut down the facility, the jail population must be drastically reduced. 

Currently, 56 percent of those held in County Jail 4 are Black, nearly 40 percent were homeless at the time of their arrest, 30 percent allegedly need mental health treatment, and 25 percent are under age 25. In addition, 80 percent of people held in the jail are there pretrial — so while they’ve been charged, they have yet to be convicted. In many cases, they remain in this state of limbo for years, unable to make bail. 

But reducing that population is harder than initially anticipated.

“Departments have made positive strides that should have resulted in a reduction of the jail population according to their October 2018 report, however, we are not seeing the corresponding drop in 850 Bryant’s population,” Haney says. 

It’s going to be an uphill battle, but Tuesday’s request is a start. So far Board of Supervisors President Norman Yee, and Supervisors Hillary Ronen, Sandra Lee Fewer, and Shamann Walton have signed on in support of the plan. A hearing will be scheduled at a later date to understand what steps need to be taken in order to finally shut down and demolish the facility. 

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