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

“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. 

Inmates in a San Bruno jail classroom in era predating covid and severe staffing shortages

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.” 

Five Keys student Bethany rediscovered her talent for math while studying in jail. Photo courtesy of filmmaker Annelise Wunderlich, 2015.

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. 

Why, indeed.

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.” 

Follow Us

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.

Join the Conversation

11 Comments

Please keep your comments short and civil. We will zap comments that fail to adhere to these short and very easy-to-follow rules.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Reading this article opened my eyes. Thank you! I thought SF was better than this. I remember hearing the then-sheriff in San Mateo County talking about the inmates being “in his care.” Didn’t we run special gardening programs for inmates? Where is our sheriff on this? Where is the mayor? The supervisors? Treating people as less than human is unlikely to improve their future behavior. Also worth mentioning are all the people who are innocent till proven guilty in a court of law but are being punished anyway, beyond anything reasonable. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.This is on us as San Franciscans. We have the money, don’t we?No excuses come to mind.

  2. We can fix this by giving every inmate a taxpayer financed $800,000.00 home! Just like we have fixed “homelessness” that way !

  3. It is painful to read your article. When will we ever learn that for a person to change, along with accountability for their actions, they need some kind of role model and inspiration? Under these conditions, we can only expect to have angry or depressed people on the streets who do not see a way to improve themselves or contribute to society. I say that we pull in Delancey Street to help solve this problem. They seem to be the “Masters of Positive Change” as their record for helping people break this cycle is unparalleled.

    1. @ Laura: There are very few inmates who can meet Delancey Street’s standards. Even if there are some of these inmates, there are not enough Deputies to have programs running consistently.

  4. Thank you so much Joe. My clients are languishing and I cry about it all the time. It’s deeply upsetting to have to tell our clients and their families I have no idea when they’ll get their day in court. And the clients are so clearly suffering. This is not good for anyone, including the community who need people to come out better or at least not worse than when they got arrested. These are human beings who are presumed innocent and have a right to fight their cases.
    The worst DAs are taking advantage of the misery and extorting our clients for time. Jenkins didn’t kick this problem off but she has seriously worsened things with terrible offers resulting in trial wins for us because they aren’t seeing the flaws in their cases or being realistic about the evidence of lack thereof. The wasting of trial resources on dumb cases because they aren’t negotiating in good faith should damn well result in consequences. There’s only one solution: the court of appeal needs to put an end to the backlog. Wipe the slate clean. And force the courts and prosecutors to do better. Slogans and “tone” to combat “feelings” that people are scared are not solutions. Crime is up under Jenkins, and climbing. Her shortsighted opportunism and lies have robbed our city of the chance to do better for all communities. We need restorative justice and to hold bad cops accountable and build trust in all of our communities by not filing charges in contraband cases resulting from pretext stops. We need to invest in programs and job training and counseling. Not more people in cages suffering.

  5. Majority of taxpayers don’t care about these inmates, nor should we. Given “catch and release”, to end up in jail you have to have done something very bad and/or be a repeat offender. These inmates make horrible decisions and ruin the lives of innocent. These inmates should have thought about their actions before committing crimes and then whining about jail.

  6. Thanks for the article. Would Mission Local consider following up on the issue of no religious programming available to jail inmates? I wonder if there are any chaplains who would be able to speak on the record about the impact on inmates. That denial appears to also deny inmates their constitutional rights.

    1. @LC: You are 100 percent correct. All types of rights are being taken away. Religious programs have been absent for too long. These problems are all a symptom of poor staffing. Appropriate SFSO staffing actually helps inmates receive their visits and religious visits. Poor staffing has the opposite effect. Poor staffing leads to inmates becoming worse.

  7. What a sad state if affairs. Joe – I’m curious whether in your reporting you stumbled into anyone that has proposed, or attempted to propose, any kind of solution to this mess.

    1. Hire more Deputies.

      https://missionlocal.org/2022/07/san-francisco-jail-staff-shortages-lockdown-brooke-jenkins-ken-lomba-sunny-schwartz-fentanyl/

      Appropriate staffing leads to programs and visits being able to function. Inappropriate staffing leads to programs and visits being automatically cut.

      @ San Francisco Voters: San Francisco was a model for County Jails. Inmates were out all day and programming all day. Visits were every Saturday, Sunday, and Holiday.

      Now there are hardly and programs, any walk time, and very limited visits on the holidays. This environment is unfair to inmates, their families, and Deputies.

      These articles are 100 percent on point.

    2. Close the Crow’s Nest Immediately.

      https://missionlocal.org/2022/07/san-francisco-jail-staff-shortages-lockdown-brooke-jenkins-ken-lomba-sunny-schwartz-fentanyl/

      @ SF Board of Supervisors: Come visit the Crow’s Nest. Talk to Deputies who work at County Jail 3, and Management at County Jail 3-and see if anybody thinks the Crow’s Nest is safe. READ ABOUT ALL THE UNSAFE INCIDENTS THAT HAVE HAPPENED AT THE CROW’S NEST.

      Talk to inmates. See when they last received an in person visit. Ask how much walk time they get a week. Ask how much in person programming they get. I guarantee you the answers aren’t weekly for visits or 72 hours a week for walks. I guarantee you the majority of inmates get no in person programming.

      We have a duty to treat our vulnerable with dignity and respect. We are San Francisco. We are better than this. SF’s inmates are sitting in boxes all day doing nothing.