Fights, shanks, contraband booze and indecent exposure have become more frequent in San Francisco jails after they implemented a new staffing policy last month, according to a claim filed by the union representing the county’s sheriff’s deputies.
The claim brought by the San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs’ Association accuses Sheriff Paul Miyamoto of disregarding staff safety by rolling out a pilot program despite the union’s warnings. Ken Lomba, who helms the union, said the plan was launched with little regard for how it affects deputies or their carceral wards.
“It’s an unsafe change for the incarcerated people, it’s an unsafe change for our deputies,” Lomba said. “This is not how San Franciscans want the jails to be run. This is not how the previous sheriffs designed the jails to be run. This is not in line with San Francisco values.”
The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, for its part, said it drummed up the staffing plan to deal with an ongoing shortage of sworn peace officers.
Per the claim, the pilot was implemented in housing unit No. 5 in the county’s San Bruno jail, where—among other changes—officials scaled back the number of times deputies checked on inmates from twice to once an hour.
“The purpose of the checks is to maintain safety and security in the jail for staff, visitors, and the prisoners,” Lomba explained in announcing the legal action. “Some of the requirements of these checks include noting the skin color of the inmate, the rise and fall of the chest, movement that indicates life, looking for any signs of illness or distress, inspection of cell doors and windows and a search for any apparent contraband or hazards.”
Such safety checks were performed by deputies walking up to each cell door to look at the inmate. At night, they’d use a flashlight, Lomba said.
On July 8, the union said that all changed.
“No longer would there be any floor deputies,” Lomba wrote. “Now, only one deputy, instead of two, would monitor all the prisoners by him/herself, from a tower called the Crow’s Nest”
In an emergency, the deputy in the observation tower would stay put and call for help instead of rushing to intervene if an inmate gets attacked or tries to harm themselves, according to the union. “Deputies who roam around the rest of the jail would then have to respond and handle the situation, wasting valuable time,” according to the union president.
As part of the new pilot, sheriff’s officials advised deputies to use binoculars to keep an eye on inmates from the Crow’s Nest. Lomba said that while binoculars may help during the day, they’re ineffective at night.
The claim says scaling back from two to one deputies has endangered staffers because backup now has to come from other parts of the jail. It also blames a recent spate of brawls, weapons and inmate-brewed alcohol known as “pruno” on the agency’s new staffing policy.
“Within days of its implementation, a fight broke out in one of the cells in the evening and it was not discovered until the next morning, a prisoner had masturbated in a nurse’s presence, and weapons [had] been found,” union officials wrote.
Ten days after the sheriff’s department launched the staffing change, the union sent a letter demanding to stop it. Four days after that, Lomba forwarded the cease-and-desist missive to the city’s personnel chief asking the Crow’s Nest practice to stop until the union could negotiate some resolution with the top brass.
Sheriff Miyamoto refused to come to the table, according to Lomba, who accused him of violating California labor law by persisting with the pilot. The union then filed an unfair labor practice charge against the sheriff’s department through the quasi-judicial state Public Employees Relations Board.
In a statement to The Standard, sheriff’s officials disputed the union’s claims that the new policy has posed a unique danger to staff.
“The Crow’s Nest affords deputies the opportunity to observe and monitor adjoining jail pods from the safety of a secure, elevated room equipped with monitors, the ability to communicate with personnel throughout the facility, and windows to allow direct communications with persons housed in the adjoining pods,” sheriff’s spokesperson Tara Moriarty said, adding that fights and weapons are common in all jails. “Nothing about use of the Crow’s Nest appears to have increased incidents such as fights, and possession of weapons and other contraband, which are endemic in the jail.”
Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org