Court Orders To Build New Jail In San Bruno

SAN FRANCISCO - U.S. District Senior Judge William Orrick Jr. this week laid down the gauntlet for San Francisco to build a new jail in San Bruno and approved fees for attorneys who have long railed about conditions at the city's largest lockup.

On Monday, Orrick issued a written order approving a tentative settlement reached in March between the San Francisco city attorney's office and Golden Gate University School of Law professor Morton Cohen. Under the agreement, the city promised to build a new jail next to the old one by 2002. The city also agreed to a series of improvements to the existing jail, including hiring additional sheriff's deputies to serve as guards. The deputies will begin work in December.

But for Orrick, the new jail to replace the dilapidated 1930s facility is the bottom line. "Although defendants have taken great strides in improving the conditions at the jail, it is clear that conditions at the jail are not, and never will be, ideal," he wrote in Jones v. San Francisco, 91-3453. "Nevertheless, defendants' commitment to building a new jail by 2002, coupled with their significant attempts to improve conditions at the jail in the meantime, appear to be a reasonable attempt to address all of the unconstitutional conditions at the jail."

The judge also awarded Cohen and his co-counsel $585,000 in fees for work over the last eight years. But so far the plaintiffs' attorneys have received only $180,000 of that money, and Cohen said he's not expecting the balance anytime soon. Cohen said the remainder will not be paid until the city has a signed and sealed deal with a contractor to build the new jail, including approval from the Board of Supervisors and the mayor. "The city was supposed to have a signed contract in June,"Cohen said. "Then it was July. Then it was August. Now they tell us it's September. There is no settlement until there's a signed contract."

Cohen has had litigation pending before Orrick alleging inadequate conditions at San Francisco jails for the last 20 years, so he has reason to be pessimistic.

The cases have resulted in improved conditions, but the city has been slow to act on resolving the politically thorny problems. In 1996, for instance, Orrick ended a consent decree Cohen had negotiated with the city for overcrowding at the Hall of Justice jail. Cohen filed that suit, Stone v. San Francisco, 78-2974, in 1978.

With Jones, Cohen and other attorneys originally filed the class action in 1991, alleging that unconstitutional living conditions existed at the San Bruno jail. In May 1993, the parties settled the suit, only to see it re-open the following year after the plaintiffs complained that the city was not living up to its side of the bargain.

Though agreements have been reached and breached before, Deputy City Attorney Joanne Hoeper said city lawyers are moments away from hammering out a deal with construction giant Morse Diesel International Inc. that they can take to the Board of Supervisors. "This is a real proposal -- a lot of work has been done on it," said Hoeper, the chief of complex litigation for City Attorney Louise Renne.

But she said there are no guarantees the proposed contract will survive the city's political process. Twice before, the question of building a new jail has been rejected by San Francisco voters. While both ballot measures garnered simple majorities, the two failed because they were bond measures that needed two-thirds approval. Both campaigns were opposed by an odd alliance of liberals who saw the measure as a way to lock up more citizens and conservatives who opposed building a new jail with borrowed money.

That's precisely why Orrick's Monday order is important, said James Harrigan, a San Francisco Sheriff's Department lawyer who has worked on the jail cases. "It's a victory for Judge Orrick more than anybody else," Harrigan said, expressing optimism that a new jail will finally be built. "He used his considerable power and charm to get the plaintiffs to do their part and to get the city off its ass to build a new jail."

(The Recorder 9-1-1999)