Supes Say No to New $380 Million Jail, Yes to Ending Mass Incarceration

City Hall told the Sheriff’s Department yesterday that it’s perfectly okay with plans for a jail, except for that little part about building a new one. Could you possibly nix that bit?

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to reject an $80 million state grant, table much of the proposed legislation, and send the rest back to committee to omit all mention of jail-building, in favor of a much cheaper initiative ($16.7 million) to buy the land adjacent to the Hall of Justice and build, well, pretty much anything else.

“It’s time to tear down not just a building but the entire system of mass incarceration,” said Board president London Breed.

[jump] The chamber was packed with activists from groups like Black Lives Matter and Critical Resistance, many of whom shut down a budget committee in protest two weeks ago (the same day Mario Woods died).

While the supes dealt with other business, the demonstrators passed out signs bearing Woods‘ face and quietly coached each other on chants (“Don’t need no killer cops or jails; the whole damn system is guilty as hell.”)

“Lord but I’m nervous,” a woman from the Young Women’s Freedom Coalition whispered to a friend as the critical agenda item approached.

But she needn’t have been. There was some brief celebratory chanting after the vote and the by-now familiar banners were unfurled for a few seconds, but the whole assembly quickly adjourned for a mini-rally on the steps of City Hall.

“We won,” Mohamed Shehk, spokesman for Critical Resistance, told the assembled activists. “But this is just the beginning. The thing we’ve really been fighting for is that this funding go to alternatives to incarceration.”

Shehk expressed suspicion that incoming sheriff Vicki Hennessy would maneuver the funds into her department somehow, saying, “We don’t want cops on this committee”

Critical Resistance would rather see the board take counsel from the families of imprisoned San Franciscans and divert the money toward education, housing, and mental health. “Things that really make our community safe,” according to Shehk.

In some ways, this outcome was entirely predictable — in that most watchers predicted it days ago. But even a few weeks prior, the jail seemed like a done deal. Most of the board voted to accept state money for it last year, and Supervisor David Campos said in so many words at that budget meeting that most of his colleagues were already on board with it.

And of course, as Supervisor Scott Wiener (the only supe who sounded less than gung-ho about turning down the proposal, although he ultimately voted the same as everyone else) pointed out, refusing to build a new jail doesn’t directly address the problem of what to do once the present dump at 850 Bryant Street is torn down.

“Let’s not pretend our jails are half-full when they’re not,” Wiener said.

But politics happen.

A year ago, a new jail might have sailed through approval and broken ground before you know it. But now the planets are aligned against it: The election of progressive Aaron Peskin to his former District 3 seat slightly but meaningfully altered the board’s make-up; local law enforcement suffered a parade of PR disasters so costly they seem in perpetual damage control mode; rage about institutional racism in America finally boiled over in the city, just as it has coast to coast; and the public is increasingly wary of big-money civic construction projects that never seem to deliver on budget.

Given all that, maybe we should be surprised this plan even got this far. Job security is never a guarantee in a democratic system. When enough of the electorate starts rocking the boat, the prudent thing is to hop out and rock it right along with them.  

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