“You can break it down, into powder.” Inmate Baruwk Ross is explaining how the addiction medicine prescribed to incarcerated people in San Francisco county jails is diverted by the facility’s more entrepreneurial residents.
“It’s a strip. You put it under your tongue. Now, this is really nasty: You put it under your tongue and take it out after it was in all your saliva; imagine taking a loogie and spitting it out into some Tylenol. Then you mix it with the Tylenol to cut it.”
Ross estimates that one mouthful can be converted into 10 servings of a recreational drug, if you can call it that. This, he says, sells within the jail for $5 a pop.
“Pretty much everybody is high. That’s how it is. People be on meth. People be on coke,” he says. “I feel like if they let us exercise and do normal stuff, people wouldn’t be using it like a crutch. But it’s like a dungeon. We just sit and watch TV.”
Multiple jail workers and fellow inmates backed up Ross’ contentions about rampant drug use in a jail where covid restrictions, the ongoing suspension of Constitutional rights to a speedy trial and a shortage of Sheriff’s deputies has led to inmates spending around 94 percent of their time confined to their cells.
“You can get anything in here,” said one jail worker. Not so long ago, that worker detected the distinctive, acrid scent of meth wafting out of cells.
In July, we reported that staff shortages at San Francisco’s jails led to inmates being confined to their cells for as much as 23 hours and 15 minutes a day, and a near cessation of programming, including religious services, violence-prevention classes and addiction counseling.
In the past couple of months, some programming has been reinstated: 96 tablet computers were recently distributed to inmates. That’s for the best, but it’s a concession to the difficulties everyone is facing here; programming remains at only a fraction of what was offered in even the recent past. And while Covid-19 is, obviously, a factor, a severe shortage of Sheriff’s deputies remans the No. 1 reason so comparatively little programming is offered and inmates are still confined to their cells almost all day.
Multiple workers in the jails this month told us that inmates are only getting around 90 minutes a day of “walk time” outside their cells, down from as much as nine hours a day only a few years back. Inmates in “administrative segregation,” like Ross, get even less; perhaps an hour a day. And the ostensible culprit here, again, isn’t just covid, but a lack of deputies.
Ross, who has been incarcerated since mid-2021, says he is in “ad-seg” — a form of solitary confinement — because he had a scuffle with a deputy. He is facing domestic violence charges; he acknowledges that he is accused of “fucked-up, foul shit.” He does not expect people’s sympathy.
But he does want people to know what’s going on in San Francisco’s jails, and questions what the long-term plan is when people are incarcerated in in such conditions. Drug use, he and others in here say, is common. Inmates are sedentary, and the chips and ramen from the commissary are fueling what multiple inmates describe as an obesity epidemic. Ross says he’s gained 30 pounds: “I feel fat as fuck and sluggish as hell. Everybody in here’s got diabetes now.”
Ross says the anti-violence programming he is involved in was reduced to packets he fills out in his cell; homework, essentially.
“Do people really expect us to be rehabbed and better and stuff if we sit in here all day not doing nothing?” he asks. His only solace comes in phone conversations with a former mentor from his time in juvenile hall. “If you don’t have anybody, oh my God, you’re going to go crazy. You’re going to kill yourself or do a lotta dope.”
On July 1, some 753 men and women were incarcerated in San Francisco’s jails. As of Friday, 811 were. Rumblings within the Sheriff’s Department were that the shuttered annex formerly known as County Jail No. 7 could soon be reopened. When directly queried about this, the department confirmed that, “if the jail count rises over 885 it becomes a challenge to house all individuals in our current housing configuration.”
So, these are the conditions reported by both workers and inmates in San Francisco’s jails. And it’s hard not to envision more inmates heading here in relative short order. Especially with the police emerging from a long torpor and now-elected District Attorney Brooke Jenkins calling for harsher penalties for the drug dealers and other criminals preying on San Franciscans (and fueling a cottage industry of articles about this city’s filth, menace and dysfunction).
That’s not to say we need to shrug our shoulders and coddle dangerous, bad-faith people. But it does mean that if the city’s primary solutions are to cloak Giuliani tactics in soft and caring semantics, cite rehabilitation services that exist more in theory than in practice, and toss more people into our understaffed jails — well, we might want to rethink that approach, too.
And, regardless of what the people and voters of San Francisco want, we may be forced to do just that. Thanks to the Constitution.
As we wrote in the summer, Jenkins is sitting atop a ticking time bomb that is not of her making. A time bomb that, like most time bombs, figures to detonate sooner or later.
Because of covid-induced chaos in the trial system, the Sixth Amendment is, presently, not being enforced in San Francisco. In happier times, unless a defendant waived his or her “right to a speedy trial,” the District Attorney was mandated to have that defendant sitting in a courtroom within 60 days, or dismiss the case. But that hasn’t been the case here for quite some time. The Public Defender litigated regarding this matter, but in May a panel of the First District Court of Appeal ruled that San Francisco’s courts did not have to lift their covid protocols, meaning that defendants could continue sitting in jail indefinitely (doing whatever they’re doing).
That ruling, however, also made it clear that things could not carry on like this forever.
Since then, things have only grown worse. In July, the Public Defender reported 451 defendants whose Constitutional trial deadlines had lapsed, of whom 149 were incarcerated. Last month, that tally was up to 770 overdue trials, with 175 of the defendants behind bars.
This is not a situation Jenkins created, but if her policies lead, in part, to a boom in the jail population, it’s one she’ll exacerbate. The lack of Sixth Amendment protections has given District Attorneys little incentive to negotiate settlements in a timely fashion. It also leaves Public Defenders with little incentive to waive the right to a speedy trial.
Sooner or later, the Court of Appeal will decide that enough is enough and covid protocols will be lifted. And then The DA will have to either dismiss hundreds of cases en masse or put on a cavalcade of trials in short order.
“It can’t be done,” Deputy Public Defender Oliver Kroll told us in July, when the backlog was smaller. “You couldn’t put on enough jury trials to clear this backlog, even if you wanted to.”
In the meantime, more than a fifth of the people in San Francisco’s jails are on pretrial detention and past date on a Constitutionally mandated right to trial.
One of them is Baruwk Ross.
“I weigh 210 pounds now. I am 5-foot-8,” says Ross. “They say I am obese.”
Ross and his fellow inmates are woken up at 3 a.m. for breakfast. They are served lunch at 9 a.m. Dinner is in the mid-afternoon. These bizarre hours are ostensibly crafted to accommodate inmates who have to be out the door at 5 a.m. for court appearances. But it’s not like court appearances have been booming over the past two years and change. “Why can’t they give them a sack lunch, and the rest of us can have breakfast at a regular time?” asks Ross.
In a prior era, Ross used to play basketball or cards with the people locked up alongside him. He’d attend programming in person. He could do research in the law library. That’s all in the past.
“I don’t want to make it sound like I’m complaining and complaining. I know I’m in jail,” he says. “But all we do is sit in a box and watch TV. And think about killing ourselves.”