San Fran jails reach breaking point with overcrowding and staffing shortages, and the Board of Supervisors want answers

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SAN FRANCISCO, CA - On Tuesday, May 14th, during a nearly three-hour long hearing, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors were hit with a stark reality about the City's tumultuous conditions in their jails. 

According to a report from Mission Local, several people present at the hearing pointed their fingers at the mayor's office and bad policy making as a direct result of deputies being attacked by inmates, the influx of inmates suffering from a mental illness, frequent lockdowns, and drugs being smuggled in. 

The City's jail population has increased rapidly in recent months, reaching pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels of more than 1,100 on any give day. The Board of Supervisors said that the overcrowding levels are due in part to increased arrests and crackdowns on public drug use and dealing on the streets, as ordered by Mayor London Breed several times over the last two years.

Supervisor Shamann Walton said in a statement, "Most certainly we know that the staffing issues, things that are happening in our jails are also a direct result of bad policy." Walton went on to point our similar issues at juvenile hall. Supervisor Hillary Ronen said, "We knew that we had a workforce crisis in the sheriff's office; we've known this for so long ... We knew that this effort to arrest not only dealers, but drug users, was going to lead to a much larger jail population of very sick people."

During the hearing, she added, "We knew we had a severe budget crisis coming ... So my number one question is: What was the plan?" Ronen said that the plan to "ramp  up" arrests came as a collaboration between the mayor, the district attorney, and the police department. At the hearing, only the mayor's office sent a representative to offer up some answers, but little came from that.

Supervisor Ahsha Safai also pointed fingers at the mayor saying, "There can't be this big push from the mayor's office to do this and then not provide you the resources and put the sheriff's deputies in harm's way and those being incarcerated in harm's way. So, doesn't this feel like this is a staffing and/or policy issue?"

Union president for the San Francisco Sheriff's Office (SFSO), Ken Lomba, said that the Sheriff's Office has had a history of being "grossly understaffed," an issue that has only gotten progressively worse in recent years. In 2019, they were understaffed by about 48 deputies; currently, it is grown to a shortfall of 175 deputies.

Lomba said in a statement, "This shows that the effort for recruiting and hiring and staffing has not been there." He said that the Sheriff's Office is "running on fumes," adding that the sheriff has not prioritized hiring, thereby putting deputies and inmates at risk in the jails.

He said that due to the overcrowding, more beds are needed to east that crowding and more deputies are needed to staff the extra space. Lomba said that the mandatory overtime and continued attrition have left deputies exhausted and less able to perform their duties. Sheriff Paul Miyamoto gave a presentation where staff shortages and decreasing budget were the main topics of discussion.

He said, "I know we have a crisis right now ... I absolutely understand that we need to get more people. And I am frustrated, just as everyone else is here, that we have limitations on that whether they're budgetary, whether they're restrictions placed on my by the comptroller's office to hire people."

Inspector General Terry Wiley said that the composition of the inmates has also charged, with a large number of inmates detoxing from drugs or struggling with mental health issues. Those who are familiar with the situation said that these issues require far more attention than deputies or health officials can currently provide.

These issues become exacerbated during the frequent lockdowns that have been happening over the last few weeks. During lockdown, inmates cannot participate in programming that is meant to help rehabilitate them and access to their public defenders and visits with family members are limited.

A press release from the mayor's office in December 2023 said that nearly 800 people had been arrested in six months for public drug use, which was nearly 15 percent more than the number of people arrested for selling drugs. 

Supervisor Dean Preston expressed his frustrations, saying, "This is a complete indictment of the War on Drugs 2.0 and of deciding to gut bail reform, gut programs that were actually starting to work and taking steps backward. This is what you get. Forty percent increase in incarceration, fewer people released on bail, people's lives and families being ruined for being held when they shouldn't be. Fifty percent of the people in jail are black; that should tell everyone exactly what's going on."

Solutions on how to fix the staffing crisis were mixed. Staff shortages contribute to lockdowns and that overreliance on overtime is unsustainable. Miyamoto said, "It's not all based on being short-staffed. It's also, as we've mentioned, who we have incarcerated right now." 

Lomba disagreed, saying that the department simply needs to hire more deputies and fill the gaps in jails. All nine supervisors who spoke during the hearing seemed to agree. Lomba said, "I didn't hear the sheriff's department point out any solutions. I didn't hear a lot of answers to your questions."

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