Eileen Hirst of the San Francisco County Sheriff’s Office just sent me statistics that prove that the majority of folks sitting in our county jails are black men awaiting trial -- statistics that underscore the extent to which the “let’s not rebuild the prison” debate really is racially tinged:
“On any given day, we have about 2000 to 2100 people in custody,” Hirst said, noting that the two jails at the center of the debate only house male prisoners.
The biggest group in custody, Hirst said, are African American (58 percent). Next come Caucasians (18 percent), Latinos/Hispanics (15 percent), Asians (4 percent) and others (4 percent).
The overwhelming majority are male (87 percent).
And the vast majority (80 percent) are simply awaiting trial.
”Only 20 percent of the jail population is sentenced,” Hirst said.
So, does this mean that the nine supervisors who voted this week for a $412 million seismic safety bond that won’t upgrade these jails are racist?
No, but it does suggest that they believe that voters won’t support a bond that uses money to help build safe facilities to house black men in custody. Instead, the $412 million bond they voted to place on the June ballot will be used to build a new police command center, and retrofit firehouses and secure their water supply.
“No one is saying that we’re not going to rebuild the jails, but they are going to do the project in phases, and this bond represents the first phase,” Hirst said.
She noted that two previous attempts to pass bonds to rebuild prisons failed to get the required two-thirds of voter approval.
(In 1992, 57 percent of voters approved a $158 million general obligation bond, ten percent short of the needed 67 percent. Two years later, in 1994, only 54 percent of voters approved a similar bond, only know the same project’s costs had expanded to $195 million.)
‘And at that point we were under a federal court order to rebuild the jails,” Hirst said. She recalled how hot water had to be pumped in from a flatbed truck parked on the front lawn in front of those facilities that lay just two football fields away from the San Andreas fault, and that they have since been rebuilt.
Hirst said community groups went out with huge photos of those poor conditions, but the public still didn’t vote to support the bond, and the jails eventually got rebuilt through a “certificate of participation” financing mechanism that Monique Moyer (who was then mayor Willie Brown’s director of public finance) came up with.
“So. I don’t think we are not going to rebuild," Hirst said. "But we do operate in a landscape of competing priorities.”