RVs parked in a lot outside the jail
Staffing shortages at County Jail No. 3 in San Bruno have led to deputies working so much overtime that some sleep in RVs parked in a lot outside the jail. File photo, July 2022

Three decades ago, Sunny Schwartz says San Francisco Sheriff Mike Hennessey reached out to her with a simple message: He didn’t want San Francisco’s jails to be “human warehouses.” 

Schwartz, who served for many years as Hennessey’s director of programming, oversaw the establishment of a vast array of social, educational, and vocational classes for inmates. A longtime jail worker recalled how, 20 years ago, you’d see 60 guys in the Roads to Recovery addiction treatment pod, with “six or seven hours a day” of programming: “You’d have relapse prevention, parenting classes, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.” 

Nothing like that is happening now. “Now,” the longtime jail worker continues, inmates “get a packet on anger management.” The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department last week confirmed to Mission Local that “most programming at CJ3” — County Jail No. 3 in San Bruno, which houses the overwhelming majority of San Francisco’s nearly 800 inmates — “has stopped due to staff shortages.” 

A generation ago, the city’s jails also moved away from the Cool Hand Lukemodel of a guard in a parapet watching the inmates from afar and adopted “direct supervision.” The deputies were in the pods with the inmates, interacting with them. “They were inside the inmates’ living quarters,” explains Schwartz. “Instead of being in an outside tier reading Mad Magazine while people are beating the shit out of each other. It’s very fundamental but it was pretty novel. It shouldn’t be.”

But, due to staff shortages, direct supervision may once more become a novelty. At County Jail No. 3, a pilot program was initiated on June 29 to, in the department’s own words, “reduce the number of required staffing positions.” Instead of direct supervision — which calls for a deputy to be placed in both of the adjoining “pods” of 48 inmates each — a single deputy would observe all 96 inmates in Pod 5 from the “Crow’s Nest.” 

In other words, back to the parapet. 

A San Bruno jail classroom in a photo from a 2017 Sheriff’s Department newsletter

Because it would be logistically impossible for one deputy locked in the Crow’s Nest to oversee nearly 100 inmates ambling around, the prisoners’ “walk time” outside their cells has been severely curtailed. Based on the literature explaining the pilot program, walk time has been reduced to 45 minutes — 45 minutes for inmates to shower, visit the library, stretch their legs, whatever. 

Deputies working inside tell me that, yes, that’s 45 minutes a day, meaning inmates in this pilot program are in their cells for the other 23 hours and 15 minutes. 

Inmates in other pods are getting more walk time — but, it seems, far less than what was once common. Deputies who worked CJ3 even only a few years back tell me that, even relatively recently, prisoners could walk around for about five to five-and-a-half hours in the afternoons, and perhaps nine hours total during the day. 

To be clear, none of this appears to be intentionally punitive. It appears to simply be the outcome of a department that has been shedding workers for years faster than it can rehire them, and has fallen well below mandatory minimum staffing levels

But, for those feeling the effects, that’s a difference without a distinction. It’s a bad combination when prisoners are held in tiny cells for the vast majority of every day without programming to not only pass the time but to make them healthier and more functional people. In-person family visits and religious services, too, are not currently available. The jail, in short, has devolved into a human warehouse. By the way, CJ3 is currently suffering through its worst covid outbreak yet. 

And it doesn’t require a soothsayer to predict that a likely outcome in San Francisco is for more inmates to soon be shunted into the city’s jails — and into these conditions. 

“The new DA Brooke Jenkins’ promise to increase prosecution i.e., of fentanyl pushers, as stated in her press interviews, means an increase in incarceration,” writes Ken Lomba, the president of the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association. 

“And we don’t have the deputy staff to properly run the jail.”

A “pod” in San Bruno, from a 2017 newsletter.

On July 18, the deputies’ union sent the Sheriffs’ Department a cease and desist letter regarding the pilot program. Among other complaints, the letter noted “less walking time for inmates, which will lead to more inmate aggression, outbursts, medical needs, and hospital runs (again, in turn increasing the potential risk to deputies who manage these inmates).”

You do not have to be a bleeding-heart liberal to see trouble brewing here. Regardless of what you think about fentanyl and deterrence and accountability, it is problematic to funnel more people into a jail system enduring these problems. 

On top of that, it is unclear how this city’s drug and property crime problems will be solved by putting accused and convicted criminals into jails where they have little in the way of substance abuse treatment or educational, behavioral or vocational programming. 

“The guys getting tossed in jail? They’re just tossed in jail; there are no quality programs at San Francisco jails,” sums up one longtime worker here. “What do they do with their time? If you’re incarcerated you sit around and play cards and dominos and tell war stories about what you did on the street. What do you think you’re going to do when they say you can go home? You’ll go back to what you’ve been thinking about the whole time you’re in jail.”  

A former deputy who is now working in the private sector tells Mission Local he often recognizes some of his “former custodies” attempting to pilfer from his new places of business. The Sheriff’s Department, he sums up, did not “give them the tools to move on in life.” 

It’s a deeply frustrating situation for the department’s veterans. San Francisco’s jail population is a third of what it was a generation ago, and longtime employees tell me that the deputies inside its jails are more polite, caring and humane than their predecessors. This is a department that, in the past, had its problems. But it does not seem that, in 2022, anybody is going out of their way to be cruel. Yet, with far less walk time and severe reductions in programming, it’s hard to say that conditions here are better than they were in the past. 

“We’re going backwards,” laments Lomba. “We’re reducing inmates’ liberties within the jail.” 

Every union wants management to hire more workers. But it’s hard to argue with Lomba’s union here: The Department in May was down 176 sworn staffers, and hiring has not been brisk. As we noted earlier this month, the department’s hiring goals are unlikely to keep up with projected attrition. 

“If we believe chickens should be cage-free, we need to ask: What are we doing to these human beings?”

Attorney Yolanda Huang

As such, an astounding 25 percent of work hours are done on overtime — during an era with some of the lowest jail counts in history. Deputies are mandated to work so much overtime — three mandatory 16-hour shifts in a five-day period, deputies say, is par for the course — that some opt to sleep in a communal room at the jail annex. Others live in RVs parked in a lot outside the jail.

Earlier this month, we wrote that lockdowns in which inmates are restricted to their cells due to staff shortages are a regular occurrence at the jails. The Sheriff’s Department has now provided us statistics telling us how regular: 44 lockdowns in the first six months of 2022. One of those lockdowns prevented lawyer Yolanda Huang from seeing a client; she was told they did not have the manpower to transport the inmate from his cell to the visiting area. 

“If we believe chickens should be cage-free, we need to ask: What are we doing to these human beings?” she asks. If San Francisco does indeed move to increase incarceration levels — and fails to address the troubling conditions already plaguing its sparsely filled jails — “then we’re going back to barbaric treatment of people.”

Again, one needn’t be a bleeding-heart to see problems here. And one needn’t be altruistic, either. “It makes the staff less safe,” Huang continues. “One day they will all be released. And what happens to us when they are more damaged than when they came in?” 

This city, it seems, is determined to find out. 

Programming at CJ3, per the Sheriff’s Department:

Our staffing issues have had the most impact on CJ#3. In the past few weeks, most programming at CJ3 has stopped due to staff shortages.

·         Five Keys teachers and program staff have been limited to speaking with clients one-on-one.

·         Staff from the Veterans, One Family, Substance Abuse Treatment Program and Violence Prevention Program can only see clients individually.  Our Violence Prevention Program had been utilizing tablets for groups throughout the pandemic, but this is not currently happening while the facility is undergoing infrastructure improvements that will allow all incarcerated persons to have tablets. 

·         The One Family Program continues to provide video visits for parents and children and has facilitated one contact visit.  There have been several housing units in quarantine due to COVID which has halted individual sessions with clients.

·         The SF Public Library has been dropping off books that are binned for distribution by SFSO staff.

·         Faith-based organizations continue to provide religious services via zoom – approximately 52 sessions per week.

·         Our Stanford Lecture series, which happens in the evening when staffing is a little better, was able to successfully complete the spring semester program on July 1st.  They did two classes in two different housing units.

·         There is currently a City College correspondence course being offered to students.

From the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, July 21

At CJ#2:

·         Due to COVID-19 prevention measures, the corridor classrooms at CJ#2 were shuttered at the beginning of the pandemic. This started as a COVID prevention protocol but the classrooms have remained closed due to staffing challenges. Currently all classes/groups including Five Keys High School classes, substance abuse treatment groups, and DV survivor groups take place in the housing area’s multi-purpose room.

·         We’ve had two parent/child contact visits for incarcerated moms which was coordinated by the One Family Program; their staff meets one-on-one with participants and facilitates additional video visits for the children. 

·         The SF Public Library regularly distributes books.

·         Faith-based organizations continue to provide religious services via zoom – approximately 30 sessions per week.

·         City College classes are offered as correspondence courses…

·         The Mentoring Men’s Movement has been meeting individually with clients and facilitating groups via zoom with clients in both jails.

From the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, July 21

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Hi this is Donte Lewis… I was a product of cj3’s annex program for violence. Better known as R.S.V.P (Resolve to stop the violence prevention program!)… I tell you I had like 108 weeks in the program… got out an even came back to work for them at 70 oak Grove. Best experience ever…. Sunny has never been anything short of GREAT to the inmate population… putting endless efforts towards the rehabilitations of the people that the city has failed… I’ve been on both side of the fence coming threw both the back with silver bracelets an the front with my jail clearance…. and hearing how the people are getting done is F@#$%D up because the R.S.V.P staff, Leo Eric Moan, Jimmy, Scott, Ruthe an the rest of the Man Alive Avocates Family (SAVED ME!) … (YES!) THEY REALLY Did when they….. GAVE ME THE TOOLS TO HELP ME WITH MY ANGER ACCOUNTABILITY & ALSO TAUGHT ME HOW TO COMMUNICATE EFFECTIVELY THREW EQUALITY LISTENING AN DISCLOSING….. THEY NEED TO BRING BACK THE OLD 2005-2008 GROUPS BACK…. AS WELL AS THE YOUNG MANS GROUP, YOUNG MEN AS FATHER’S AND TRUE SELF classes.Doing the restorive justice an realy growing had encouraged the victim from my violence to reach out an talk to me an forgave me an even is willing to come an do a SURVIVOR IMPACT…if possible…..!

  2. How about paying more? I later check when private employers complain of a dearth of workers. Try paying more and increasing benefits. Pretty simple and obvious potential solution. But what serves the interest of the class in power is viewed as common sense, and what challenges it is viewed as blasphemy. Or simply never gets said.

  3. For the person commenting on deputies collecting a ton of cash in Jingletown, I say let them trade for one day. It is dangerous and back breaking work. Not only are you faced with people that want to harm you, but Covid19 and monkey pox. There is no amount of money to endure what these deputies have to for mandatory overtime. No way. God Bless these men and women.

  4. Today’s prison population is one third of what it was a generation ago. The courts have not been in session full time during the pandemic. My questions –
    A generation ago, (pick a date), how many prisoners were there and how many deputies staffed the jails?
    As of today, what would be a full complement of deputies?
    As of today, how many deputies are employed in the Department?

    Comparison, If there are one-third the prisoners today, shouldn’t one third the deputies be needed to staff the facilities? If not what makes it so much harder to watch over the custodies today?

    Services need to be provided to those in custody but is it civilians or sworn members providing these services.
    That said, how many civilians provided services a generation ago as opposed to how many civilians are employed today?
    Is it more civilians are needed or more deputies?

    1. “Today’s prison population is one third of what it was a generation ago.”

      Complete and utter nonsense.

    2. Fair question. I do not have stats off the top of my head, so I’ll answer some questions.

      Question: Comparison, If there are one-third the prisoners today, shouldn’t one third the deputies be needed to staff the facilities?

      Answer: Not necessarily. At the CJ3 complex, one Deputy can watch up to 48 inmates. If one of the pods went down to 20 inmates, you would still need that 1 Deputy to secure a housing unit. COVID prevents pods from being consolidated. Even compared to three years ago, the inmates now in custody are a lot worse. Think about it, these are the guys Chesa Boudin are willing to prosecute. These inmates are consolidated in pods where 2 Deputies are needed.

      Question: If not what makes it so much harder to watch over the custodies today?

      Answer: About the only inmates in SF County Jail nowadays are repeat violent offenders. Almost all the other criminals are on ankle monitor or just released.

      Question: Services need to be provided to those in custody but is it civilians or sworn members providing these services.

      Answer: Generally civilians, but Deputies are needed to secure the environment. If there is a staffing shortage, inmates cannot do certain activities like see a dentist. Deputies have to walk the inmates everywhere to keep the facility secure.

      Question: Is it more civilians are needed or more deputies?

      Answer: Civilians to provide the service, but Deputies are needed so that the civilians can actually provide services. Jails are very secure facilities. Civilians cannot just walk in and give dental appointments and mental health treatment. Civilians and Deputies work hand in hand.

  5. For three years in the early 80’s, I worked as a SF Deputy Sheriff. For 20 years I worked with Sunny Schwartz and a team of “Prisoner Services Counselors” providing rehabilitation programs. Jails do not work. Humans are not meant to be caged. Any business with the abysmal record of failure found in our criminal justice system would be shuttered within a year, yet we continue dumping billions into this morass.

    Are there some people that need to be indefinitely confined? Yes, but they are few and far between. Some need to be temporarily removed for the safety of their survivor/s and community. Could incarceration in a jail that provided humane services help? Yes, but the “tail” or record that follows people who have been incarcerated often prevents them from finding work, housing, and myriad other important services for the rest of their lives. Why not look at allowing offenders to lose their “tail” after a period of time after they’ve engaged in treatment and if survivors and community feel it is safe to do so.

    We have tried retributive justice and it has failed miserably. Restorative justice includes offender accountability, involving survivors in the entire justice process and providing opportunities for offenders to integrate back into society. It works. We do not need jails, as we know them, to accomplish this.

    Income inequality buttresses all of the sexism, racism and other isms that results in a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world and yet, daily mass shootings.
    Let’s go to the source of our problems. We might just have a chance to fix them.

    1. You miss the mark here. It is not whether a person was imprisoned that is fouling the chances in life after release. It’s what they were convicted for. Example: Someone who was convicted of embezzlement is going to have a hard time getting hired as an accountant because of that, not because of time in prison.

  6. Well written but very sad article on the County Jails in San Francisco. I volunteered there in one of the programs which has been discontinued for the time being, and am waiting for things to open up again so I can continue. It is a sad state of affairs and it broke my heart to learn that most or many inmates are being kept inside their cells for 23 hours a day.
    Thank you for keeping us apprised, Joe.

  7. Joe,

    Thanks to you and Lydia for the spoken text.

    I can walk around and do tasks as I listen.

    Is anyone else doing this ??

    Michael Hennessey left this as the best run Jail in America.

    I like this new guy too, Miyamoto.

    As an old Special Ed Vet I hate to hear the School being closed.

    It was the first of its kind in the U.S.A..

    Go Niners !!

    h.

  8. Last time I looked, free range chickens are not running around the city murdering asian seniors and takiking selfies over the dying victim.

  9. Thank you for this article, Joe. It is both essential and deeply disturbing. In the early 90s, while working in public affairs at a local radio station, I was fortunate to visit the San Bruno facility. Our “tour guide” was then Sheriff Mike Hennessey. I was amazed at the educational, behavioral and spiritual programming available to inmates. And astonished at a gardening program wherein inmates dug, sowed and harvested the fruits of their labors. By comparison–by any standard–what current and future inmates now face is plainly and simply inhumane. With no solutions on the horizon.

  10. Dealing with those already incarcerated is important, but it’s like dealing with a compounded problems. Why not also treat the problem at the root? Help create a life so that no one feels the need to commit a crime to live. One is making sure that ALL kids get a good start in life. Access to descent education, food, healthcare etc regardless of their background/income of their parent.

    As for jails I’m sure tones could be done. How about putting them to do farm work for 5hours a day out in the field. I doesn’t get more real than growing your own food. And it’s better than wasting time doing nothing in jail.

    1. We have to treat the problem at the root AND simultaneously hold Justice Involved People accountable when justice is served. Putting violent felons on ankle monitor, or releasing Justice Involved People back on the streets with no programming is dangerous to innocent San Franciscans. The system can only be more just if more Deputies are hired. Not hiring Deputies causes the most unfortunate of society to be unjustly caged up all day with no programming.

  11. How can the new DA say that new arrestees will get rehabilitation when the conditions in San Francisco’s main jail are more restrictive than Pelican Bay Supermax?

    The solution is to hire. Hiring brings security in the jail; which allows the programs San Francisco jails were famous for-to flourish.

    Another solution is to build a new downtown jail facility. If San Franciscans are incarcerated, they deserve to receive programming in a humane facility.

    No staffing and no facility forces San Francisco to place violent criminals on ankle monitors. We have to be compassionate while protecting the public at the same time.

  12. It’s Jingletown. There are quite a few folk who drive their RV into the Bay Area, work lucrative double-shifts en bloc, shower at 24 Fitness, then drive back pockets full of $$$.

  13. This one makes you think and that’s good, I believe! My question is what are the reasons for the understaffing? Is compensation too low? SFUSD and even the Police dept are having similar recruiting and retention challenges. I wonder if the wealth inequality in this city (last time I checked at the top or near the top of the list in that category) is making it impossible to live here or even near here with the compensation being offered for these jobs. I definitely don’t know the answer to that but I wish I did. Maybe others have more data, info on that question. This being SF, my gut is that our City’s devolution into just rich people and poor people plays some kind of factor.

    1. It is really tough to work in San Francisco. Our clientele in the hospital, jails, street need a lot of attention.

      Would you rather work in a more dangerous environment, or work and live in a suburb with less danger, no commute, and similar pay?

    2. Kid,

      Workers like these guys and cops are strong and smart and want to make everything they can in their 20 or 30 year service years which get’s them out in their early 50’s with 30 years of retirement.

      To make the most, workers vote in Union leaders who leave slots unstaffed so that present staff can double-dip by working those hour with overtime.

      This has been going on for decades with the cops and I know cause I watched it.

      They are required by Charter to keep a certain number of Staff on Duty at all time so the elders can figure it into their Mortgage.

      lol

      They want the vacancies !!

      They make over a hundred grand base and start adding on and …

      As Everett Dirksen once famously said:

      “I know a billion dollars doesn’t sound like a lot of money.”

      Go Niners !!

      h.

    3. One last item. Deputies downtown and at SFGH have to pay a lot of money for parking. Other agencies “no”. You get a take home car.

  14. County jail #2 is a bit different than #3. Instead of locked cells on the pod’s main floor level, they have open rooms with two bunks, and the crow’s nest is centered and open. The upper tier is locked cells with one bunk (as I believe is all of San Bruno), and although two beds, are single inmate occupied.

    So the locked cells are solitary confinement, though they don’t refer to it that way as that is a prison protocol. The best you can hope for is the open quarters at jail #2 where you’re able to socialize to some degree throughout the day.

    What some people don’t realize is that in jail you are never able to stretch your eyes, see the sun, or feel the air – benefits even the general population at Pelican Bay supermax are afforded daily.

  15. Did the Sheriff’s Office transfer deputies from Laguna Honda Hospital to the jail since the hospital does not have patients right now?

  16. I was under the impression that SF county jails are only for those either awaiting trial and can’t make bail, or in jail for misdemeanor convictions, or otherwise serving sentences of no more than one year. The serious long-term felons are in state prisons.

    So whilst conditions there may be bad, perhaps inevitable if the facilities are under-staffed, no one prisoner has to suffer that for a long period of time. Do you have a figure for how long the average inmate stay is? A few weeks or months?

    1. There is no formal Supreme Court precedent on what length of stay becomes an 8th Amendment violation, and although over a year is often considered the threshold of when a jail stay becomes inhumane, there is no trigger to prevent it from happening. As Huang has previously pointed out, some inmates are held in County for years.

    2. Every county jail in the state has a mix of people awaiting trial, an those convicted (which includes pleas).

      People serving sentences with n misdemeanors, yes, but also people sentenced on felonies whether it be probation and time, or certain sentences that are for more than a year but on not California Departmemt of corrections eligible.

    3. As a SFSO deputy, I can tell you that by in large the inmates that we are serving over a year in prison are all facing life sentences. The 6th amendment right to a fair and speedy trial is for the accused not for anyone else . The accused can delay trails indefinitely in San Francisco. Why exactly judges allow this in San Francisco I can’t tell you but it’s a common defense tactic if you don’t have a good case to delay as long as possible because eventually witnesses move away or pass away, memories get foggy, and evidence get lost. Remember how long R. Kelly was able to put of some of his trials? The vast majority of inmates there for extended periods of time would rather serve there time wait it out in county jail hoping for a better verdict than go to trial and get longer sentences.

      1. Deputy #2,

        Fantastic and concise synopsis of a complex system.

        What about the Overtime and did Michael Hennessey hire you ?

        Go Clemson !!

        h.

  17. This is a problem. But we can’t use it as yet another excuse to let drug dealers operate with impunity.

    It would be better if jail were not this unpleasant. However, perhaps it will have more of a deterring effect on repeat visitors.

    1. When will people who have no personal experience with the criminal legal system understand that deterrence is a red herring?! No one ever stops before doing a crime to think, gee jail sucks or gee I don’t wanna go to jail or even who is the DA in this jurisdiction? My clients spend months or years in SFCJ waiting their day in court especially now with the Covid backlogs. There’s no deterrence to any of this. Deterrence means addressing root causes of crime like poverty mental illness, substance use disorder or trauma

      1. If there aren’t Deputies to staff the jail, there are no programs to turn Justice Involved People’s lives around. If there are no programs, there can be no true deterrence that addresses root causes like mental health. Deputies are part of the solution. Defunding SFSO penalizes the most vulnerable of society.

      2. It is ridiculous to suggest that we should do things like “abolish poverty” as a substitute for custodial sentences. Plenty of poor people commit no crimes and plenty of well off people commit crimes. And abolishing poverty is impossible anyway.

        Moreover deterrence is only one of the purposes of prison sentences. Other reasons include to punish wrongdoers, to remove wrongdoers from society to help keep us safe and to provide opportunities for redemption.