San Francisco Sheriff Paul Miyamoto (photo credits: Jessica Christian, San Francisco Examiner/Jeff Chiu, AP)

City Hall Must Let the Sheriff and Health Officials Do Their Jobs

By Joel P. Engardio

The threat of coronavirus in jail is real. The close quarters puts both inmates and guards at risk of infection. The Examiner reported that multiple deputies have tested positive along with the first jail inmates.

That’s why it is imperative that Sheriff Paul Miyamoto and public health officials be able to work unhindered by politics to handle the crisis and reduce the jail population.

Public health officials have the expertise to determine what needs to be done to prevent the spread of the virus. Sheriff Miyamoto runs San Francisco’s three jails and knows which inmates pose the most danger to public safety. He can decide which inmates are safe for release and which ones need to stay in custody.

Dr. Lisa Pratt, the director of Jail Health Services, said the total jail population should be reduced to between 700 and 800 inmates for effective social distancing, according to an Examiner report. Miyamoto agreed and told the Chronicle he compiled a list of inmates for early release: those with a high risk of infection and those who have less than 60 days left on their sentence.

When it comes to jails and the coronavirus, two voices matter: health officials and the sheriff.

“Irresponsible” legislation
Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, however, introduced legislation to speed up the previously scheduled closure of County Jail №4 at the Hall of Justice under the guise of concern over COVID-19.

Sheriff Miyamoto said in a statement that Fewer’s legislation is “irresponsible” because it won’t allow him to reconfigure existing jails to accommodate inmates from the closed jail.

Read the draft legislation here. Note on page 10, the proposed law calls for no more than 1,044 total inmates in San Francisco — which would be 90 percent capacity of the remaining two jails. On page 12, the law would forbid adding new beds to the remaining jails or transferring inmates to a jail in another county.

Sheriff Miyamoto says this gives him no margin to deal with unforeseen circumstances like the current coronavirus crisis.

The Examiner reported that Miyamoto sent a letter to Fewer saying it is “reckless” to predict future jail capacity based on today’s numbers, which were reduced through early releases as a precaution against coronavirus.

“Right now, 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 this moment is not the time. It is a separate issue from how jails must handle today’s pandemic.

Miyamoto emphasized that simply releasing an inmate doesn’t guarantee they will be safe from coronavirus. In some cases, 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 Chronicle.

Miyamoto also pointed out that the population in San Francisco’s jail is more dangerous than jails in neighboring counties. He told the Chronicle 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.

“The infrastructure does not exist to support the release of serious and violent offenders and arrestees into our community while protecting the victims of crimes and our public safety,” Miyamoto said in a statement.

Lost opportunity
Everyone agrees the rundown jail at the Hall of Justice is seismically unsafe and no longer suitable for inmates. Miyamoto said he wants 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.

Limited alternatives
Miyamoto warned that Fewer’s proposed legislation will “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 expand and reconfigure San Francisco’s two remaining jails to meet public safety needs. But according to the Chronicle and the draft of the ordinance, Fewer’s legislation would prohibit the addition of beds to County Jails Nos. 2 and 5.

“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.

The sheriff also said Fewer’s legislation “blocks capital improvements to our existing jails, which are required for the safe and secure detention of the people in our custody.”

And the Chronicle reported that Fewer’s legislation would prohibit the expansion of ankle-monitoring programs to reduce the jail population.

“As written, the Supervisor’s legislation is not only irresponsible, it is a threat to public safety,” Miyamoto said.

We need to let public health officials and Sheriff Miyamoto do their jobs in managing the coronavirus crisis without interference from politicians with a broader criminal justice agenda.

Joel Engardio is 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 March 24, 2020.

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