People’s power defeats new jail

San Francisco

sf_1231San Francisco, Dec. 18 – Against all odds, a grassroots coalition has defeated a plan to build a new, 384-bed downtown jail at a cost of between $240 million and $465 million, with 30 years of debt financing. In what the No New SF Jail Coalition called “an historic moment in our long and difficult fight against jail expansion,” the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted on Dec. 15 to reject the new jail plan.

“I am not going to support another stand-alone jail to continue to lock up African Americans and Latinos in this city. We are not going to continue to lock up people who have mental illness and substance abuse problems and clearly need to be treated,” said Board President London Breed, reported the Dec. 14 San Francisco Examiner.

Activists shut down budget meeting

The decisive moment in the two-year No New SF Jail campaign may have come earlier on Dec. 2, when about 100 people took over the Board of Supervisors chambers in City Hall to demand “Stop the jail project now!” As five young organizers deployed a lockdown, the crowd unfurled a banner and shut down a Budget Committee meeting that had been expected to rubber-stamp the jail proposal.

Meanwhile, three young Black women led nonstop chanting and dancing for more than two hours until police cleared the room. They chanted, “Lift us up, don’t lock us up,” “Kids not cages,” “Affordable housing, not jail beds,” “Supervisor Tang, do the right thang” and “House keys, not handcuffs.” Protesters shook their keys in time with the chant. When an official tried to stop the chanting, saying, “So we can get on with public comments,” an older man shouted, “This is public comment!”

Last-minute vote was unanimous

The fate of the jail proposal was touch and go, right up until the last minute. Many people thought the plan would pass, as it was backed by the sheriff, the mayor and other movers and shakers in the city. As a No New SF Jail Coalition statement said, “This just goes to show that when we use our people power we actually shift our political conditions and realities.” (Dec. 16) In the end, the board vote on Dec. 15 was a unanimous “No!”

Community members had testified at the public hearing and made key points: Some 85 percent of people in the San Francisco jail are simply awaiting trial and cannot afford bail. So the jail is really “a paupers’ prison.” They stressed that African Americans make up more than half of those locked up in city jails, yet are only 4 percent of the city’s population, as a result of gentrification, displacement and lack of jobs.

Another point raised was that jail promoters used tricky financing — “certificates of participation,” where taxpayers pay a higher interest rate — in order to get around public opposition. Normally a bond issue is used to finance projects like the new jail, but that would
have required a ballot measure that jail promoters knew they would lose.

Lisa Marie Alatorre, in a statement from the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, said, “We don’t want jails that are newer and nicer. We want alternatives to imprisonment and permanent
affordable housing, and for people locked inside to return to their communities. As we’ve shown today, we will make this happen through our collective strength.” (Dec. 15)

Kamau Walton, a member of Critical Resistance Oakland and Black Lives Matter Bay Area, emphasized, “[W]e reject the notion that Black residents’ only way of accessing resources like mental healthcare is by criminalizing them, arresting them and locking them away.”
(, Dec. 15)

Others supporting the campaign to stop the new jail included the Letter Carriers union, Teachers union, Tenants union and California Coalition for Women Prisoners.