Eras In SFSD History

San Bruno: “The Most Modern Jail in the World” Part 3 of 3 - 1969-2012

Overcrowded, Falling Apart, and Dangerous

The final forty-two years of San Francisco’s county jail in San Bruno would be defined by a litany of prisoner escapes, deteriorating infrastructure, and heroic attempts at prisoner rehabilitation.

This view is looking southeast from above the coastal hills where the back of County Jail No. 2 can be seen in the left center of the photo. San Francisco International Airport is barely visible in the haze, upper right. The Super Constellation was attempting to climb just after going directly over the county jail. It hit the east facing side of the ridge and scattered wreckage on the west side. The US Coast Guard radar building can be seen at the top of the ridge to the left of the crash site.

But a different, and singular, moment in the jail’s history occurred in the chilly rain and fog shrouded early morning of December 24, 1964.

A four engine 70 ton Super II Constellation cargo plane which had just taken off from San Francisco International Airport crashed in the hills just west of County Jail No. 2. All three of the plane’s crewmen were killed.

Sheriff’s Lieutenant Paul Anderson was the jail’s midnight watch commander when just before 12:33 AM the huge plane, rapidly losing altitude, barely missed the seven story county jail. Had the fully fueled cargo plane crashed into the main jail building there would have been hundreds of injuries and deaths.

The sound of commercial aircraft in the skies near the jail is common since planes taking off from the airport routinely fly west through a gap in the coastal mountains just north of the jail grounds.

Lt. Anderson told the Chronicle that the plane’s four engines were throbbing “at full power—but sounded normal—except that they were too low” when the plane roared overhead. “The building shook”, stated Anderson, “because it was right down on top of us, maybe up about 100 feet. The motors were going along and then there was suddenly a big ball of flame.”

A view looking north from the crash site shows pieces of the huge plane and the close distance to the main San Bruno jail building. See the SF History Links section of this site for specific details of the crash.

As late as 2006, pieces of the crashed plane and scattered remnants of its cargo of fabric, electronic equipment and costume jewelry could be found in the hills behind the San Bruno jail prisoner recreation yard.

Another historic benchmark for County Jail No. 2 had occurred seven years earlier on the morning of Sunday July 21, 1957. That is the date that one L.J. Rickett, 35, a prisoner serving county time for petty theft, became the first San Bruno inmate in the jail’s history to escape from a locked cell in a jail tier.

Rickett used a 14 inch iron bar to break the glass in his cell window and pry apart the metal bands across it. Using knotted clothing and blankets he lowered himself 30 feet to the outside gunwalk, then another 25 feet to the ground.

Rickett was later recaptured in San Joaquin County. As jail escapes increased and escapees committed additional crimes on the run, San Mateo officials and local San Bruno residents began to step up their objections over the poor level of security at County Jail No. 2.

By the end of the 1950s the growing prisoner population and chronically poor deputy staffing became a significant contributing factor in the San Bruno jail’s overall decline.

The 1955-56 average daily inmate population was 673, 12% over capacity. In a December 1958 report the San Francisco Grand Jury noted that the average daily population at County Jail No. 2 for the fiscal year 1957-58 soared to 882—147% of the jail’s rated capacity.

On December 26, 1961 an official from City and County Employees Local 400, the union which represented deputy sheriffs, complained to Mayor George Christopher that poor staffing had created a "an extremely dangerous situation" on the night shift at County Jail No. 2. The union official noted that a survey showed that, "for at least ten of the last fifteen days the night shift has operated with a total of two jailers and one captain in complete charge of 526 prisoners". The union's average daily prisoner count was off by some 300 prisoners, but Sheriff Matthew Carberry was still outraged.

Carberry called the assertion "inaccurate and exaggerated" and countered with a remarkable statement: normally three jailers and one captain are scheduled for duty from 4:00 PM to 8:00 AM each night but “sickness or other assignments sometimes cause the number of jailers to be cut to two.” To oversee over 800 inmates. 

In 1962 the average daily population of County Jail No. 2 continued to be well over 800 prisoners, taxing the already neglected physical plant and the ability of understaffed deputies and supervisors to keep the facility safe and secure.

As a result, during the late 1950s and especially the early 1960s, escapes became epidemic.

• May 12, 1959 James Johnson, 19, and Richard De Summers, 22, escaped then stole a car from the Coast Guard Station on the mountainous ridge above the jail. Johnson was recaptured in Santa Cruz, CA on May 13 driving the stolen car.
• December 15, 1962 Clarence Cleveland, 20, and Michael Sequeria, 19, escaped and stole a car in Pacifica.
• October 13, 1965 Clarence Ferrell, 22, and Ronald Price, 19, used a makeshift rope to lower themselves down six floors and then stole a car. They were arrested on October 14th by San Francisco police.
There were four other escapes in 1965.
• February 23, 1966 James O’Brien, 45, sawed through a stairwell window bar and escaped. The escape was discovered only when O’Brien’s girlfriend called police to report he had just telephoned her and threatened to kill her.
• October 8, 1968 two prisoners working at the jail farm scaled the facility’s perimeter fence and escaped. Incredibly, they were being guarded by three civilian farmers and several inmate trustees.
• One of the largest jail breaks in the jail’s history took place on February 23, 1969 when five prisoners used tools to spread the window bars in a jail restroom, tied blankets together and scaled down the outside walls. Three of the escapees were captured shortly after the jailbreak.

In a June 12, 1966 article in the San Francisco Examiner reporter Ernest Lenn wrote that “San Francisco’s main county jail in the San Bruno hills is becoming a grim little San Quentin.”

Lenn noted that felony charged prisoners were housed in a jail designed 30 years ago to rehabilitate the City’s street drunks. Sheriff Matt Carberry consistently asked for more staff in his yearly budget requests to the Board of Supervisors and Mayor but he was criticized for not pushing harder and getting results.

Reporter Lenn wrote, “…Some City Hall observers contend that Carberry—in contrast to some other department heads—does not fight aggressively enough at budget time. They felt the sheriff has not detailed conditions at the jail, or cited the urgency, to justify additional man power.”

Deputy Sheriff Dan Flynn, who was assigned to the San Bruno jail and was President of the Deputy Sheriff’s Association at the time, noted to Lenn that on some nights there were only one or two deputies on duty and one lieutenant. “The jail facilities”, Flynn stated, “are inadequate for the type and number of criminal offenders being dealt with.” 

Three years and five days after Lenn’s Examiner article appeared, a deadly incident occurred that would become an iconic representation of the jail’s many failures.

A Murder in Pacifica

On the night of Tuesday June 17, 1969 four San Bruno inmates pried back the metal bars on a cell window using the metal framing pulled from the bottom of a jail ping-pong table.

Then they slid down the outside of the jail on a rope fashioned from jail blankets.

Two of the escapees immediately split off from the others. Carlos Lopez (also known as Joe Jojola), 25, had seven months left on his sentence for an armed robbery conviction. Clarence Galindo, 18, had six months left on a petty theft conviction.

San Bruno inmate escapee Carlos Lopez (left) lived at 138 6th Street San Francisco; his partner Clarence Galindo listed his residence as 175 6th Street. At his trial Lopez testified that Galindo broke into the Pedersen house while Lopez waited outside. When he heard screaming, Lopez went into the house and found Galindo beating May Pedersen with a pair of metal gardening shears and Christian Pedersen lying nearby bleeding from the head. Lopez testified he pushed Galindo away from Mrs. Pedersen.
Galindo refused to testify at his trial and when Judge Kane indicated he would sentence Galindo to life in prison if he pled guilty, Galindo changed his plea to "guilty".
On Sunday March 27, 1983 Galindo was invloved in a San Quentin prison fight between 19 black and Hispanic inmates. Galindo was killed when his head was crushed with a 45 pound barbell.

Lopez and Galindo scaled the jail’s west perimeter fence and headed up and over the ridge toward the coast. The two escapees hid out in the coastal hills west of the jail for two days. Then on June 19th they moved almost due south and came to a residential area in the city of Pacifica where ten quiet streets each dead ended at the northern edge of the coastal wilderness.

Pacifica Police had warned residents in the Vallemar Valley neighborhood to be on the lookout for four men who had just escaped from the San Francisco County Jail.

For some reason Lopez and Galindo ended up at 165 Winona Street, the last house on the block. In the early evening of July 19th Galindo broke the window in a rear door and quickly gained entry and Lopez followed him. They were looking for money and food.

Inside were 92-year-old Christian Pedersen and his 74-year-old wife May. Both were brutally beaten by Clarence Galindo, who hit Christian Pedersen several times in the head with a blunt object. He was attacking May Pederson with a pair of metal shears when Lopez pulled him off her.

On the morning of Friday June 20th a neighbor glancing at the Pedersen’s front window noticed a strange man inside. She called Mrs. Pedersen on the phone and asked if she could talk. “No,” she haltingly said, “we have someone visiting us.”

Then a man abruptly got on the phone, saying he was visiting the Pedersens and needed a ride to San Francisco. The neighbor recommended a local cab company and hung up. Highly suspicious, she immediately called the Pacifica Police. Seven officers responded and began surrounding the Pedersen home.

Pacifica Police Capt. Ray Shipley went around to the back of the house and immediately spotted Clarence Galindo dressed in Christain Pedersen's clothes attempting to hide in the crawl space under the home. Galindo surrendered without a fight.

Christen Theodore Pedersen began as an apprentice seaman in 1894 on the steam bark Fearless.  He became a first mate and, in 1913, a novice ship's captain sailing the whaling schooner Elvira. Pedersen was the captain of a number of other ships in his career during which he had many seagoing adventures in the wild seas between San Francisco Bay and Northern Alaska. He retired to Pacifica to be close to the ocean he loved so much.

Inside the home police found Christian Pedersen in his bed bleeding profusely with severe head wounds and his wife nearby also beaten and in shock. Transported to a San Francisco hospital, Pedersen was dead on arrival and his wife had a fractured skull and other injuries.

Thirty additional officers soon responded from nearby north Peninsula law enforcement agencies and a house-to-house search was begun for Carlos Lopez. An hour later a San Mateo County Sheriff’s dog flushed Lopez out from under the Pederson’s house.

Both were booked by Pacifica Police for murder.

For decades after, the Pedersen murder would be automatically cited whenever other San Bruno escapes occurred, when jail replacement or expansion was proposed, or when just about any other issues came up regarding San Francisco’s jail in San Bruno.

Invariably the reference would be about “the sea captain who was killed”. Christian Pedersen had been a fifty year veteran of trading and fishing in the sometimes fearsome waters of the Artic and around northern Alaska.

On December 12, 1969 Carlos Lopez was found guilty of second degree murder and first degree robbery in a Redwood City courthouse. He was sentenced to five years to life in prison.

Clarence Galindo was sentenced by Superior Court Judge Robert Kane to life in prison on January 20, 1970 for the murder of Christian Pedersen and for the beating of May Pedersen.

Reaction to the murder came from a number of directions, all universally condemning Sheriff Matt Carberry and conditions at the San Bruno jail.

On June 27th, ten days after the escape, State Assemblyman Leo Ryan and Pacifica Mayor Nick Gust made a surprise hour long inspection of County Jail No. 2, trailing behind a caravan of reporters and television news cameramen.

At the conclusion of the tour, Assemblyman Ryan said he was “scared”, noting that the jail’s security was “miserable”.

“This jail was made for pickpockets and for drying out drunks”, Ryan told reporters, “but it’s being used for hard-core criminals.”

Mayor Gust had one unhelpful suggestion, and then stated the obvious. San Francisco officials, he declared, should “use Alcatraz” instead of San Bruno to house its prisoners. He also pointed out that “when they escape it seems they head right for Pacifica.”

Sheriff Carberry was reported to be “furious” with Ryan and Gust’s impromptu inspection and public critique of his jail and he told Mayor Gust to call him directly for any future visits to the county jail.

This was a time when San Francisco’s sworn deputy sheriffs were just beginning to use their union as a platform to publicly advocate for better jail conditions and more jail staff.

Deputy Sheriff’s Association President John Courtney criticized Carberry for the “token submission of his budget requests. Sheriff Carberry comes back from his administrative meetings with the mayor and supervisors without a thing in the way of improvement for the institutions, personnel, and jail inmates themselves.”

Sergeant Courtney pointed out that Carberry’s comment that there were five deputies on guard the night of the Lopez and Galindo escape was not true. There were, Courtney stated, one deputy and four part-time helpers “literally scraped off the street.” The regular deputy in charge that night had the title “acting lieutenant but had only one year’s experience in the Sheriff’s Department”.

Also noted by Courtney was the fact that Carlos Lopez had made an escape attempt just several days before the successful June 17th escape, and “no action was taken to prevent a second attempt.” Courtney sardonically added that, “He [Lopez] was placed in a cell two floors higher, but that only meant he had to add a few more blankets to slide to the ground after he spread the bars.”

In fact Lopez would make yet another escape attempt on September 8, 1969 when he swallowed several razor blades hoping to be transported to the less secure San Mateo County hospital for treatment. Instead he was treated at San Quentin’s secure medical facility.

A Murder in the Tenderloin and a Strange Coincidence

Sadly the story of Carlos Lopez’s criminal life didn’t end with his conviction for escaping from the San Francisco County Jail at San Bruno and the Pedersen killing and robbery.

Lt. William Scheffler was lying on the sidewalk on Jones Street with a fake finger injury (point A). His pockets were picked by James Anderson and a wallet with $3 was taken. Officer Gibbs was in an unmarked police car in a parking lot at the intersection of Jones and Golden Gate Avenue. When Lt. Scheffler gave a prearranged signal, Gibbs quickly drove out and parked his vehicle at the curb (point B). Officer Gibbs showed his badge and ordered Anderson to prone himself against the vehicle. Ramon Salcido came up to the rear right of Officer Gibbs and shot him. Both suspects ran in different directions. Salcido fired several shots at Lt. Scheffler and Officer James Lomax, the third officer on the team, before he was captured.

Lopez’s conviction for the Pacifica crimes was overturned in Novemeber 1971. Instead of being re-tried, Lopez was released from prison on parole in July of 1976 after the serving the five year minimum of his original sentence. Lopez returned to San Francisco and immediately starting using the name “Ramon Salcido”; he also immediately started committing violent crimes.

On the night of September 26, 1977 a three person San Francisco Police robbery decoy team set up a scenario in the City’s Tenderloin neighborhood. Lt. William Scheffler posed as a disabled person on the sidewalk at 136 Jones Street while officers James Lomax and Douglas Gibbs were nearby ready to make arrests.

At 1:30 AM two men, Ramon Salcido (aka Carlos Lopez) and James Anderson robbed Lt. Scheffler. Anderson was almost immediately stopped a block away by Officer Gibbs. As Gibbs was searching Anderson against his unmarked car at the corner of Jones Street and Golden Gate Avenue, Salcido came up behind him in the darkness and shot him under the right arm from two feet away.

Carlos Lopez’s conviction in the Pacifica murder/robbery was overturned in November 1971 by the California Supreme Court based on the murder-felony doctrine. This states that any homicide which occurs during the commission of a felony "inherently dangerous to human life" is murder. In a 6-1 decision the Court deemed that an escape from confinement (in this case from County Jail No. 2) is not "inherently dangerous".

The bullet creased Officer Gibbs’ heart and despite receiving almost immediate medical aid from a paramedic unit which happened to be in the area, he died on October 1st at Mission Emergency Hospital.

In a foot chase that immediately followed the shooting, Salcido fired numerous shots at police officers. He was caught when Lt. Scheffler, who was not armed, pretended to have a gun and raised his hands in a classic shoot position. In the darkness on Turk Street Salcido could not tell Scheffler didn’t actually have a gun and surrendered even though he had one more round in his weapon.

His accomplice James Anderson was wounded in the shoulder by one of Salcido’s shots and arrested 15 hours later.

It was quickly determined that Ramon Salcido was the same Carlos Lopez who had escaped from the San Bruno jail and committed the Pacifica murder and robbery eight years prior.

In a bizarre twist it was also revealed that Salcido was arrested in 1968 by patrolman William Scheffler for robbing a garage attendant at the 5th and Mission parking garage. Scheffler also chased Salcido during that incident and arrested him at 3rd and Howard Streets.

Ramon Salcido was serving time for that robbery at the San Francisco County Jail in San Bruno jail under the name “Joe Jojola” (aka “Carlos Lopez”) when he escaped with inmate Clarence Galindo and broke into the Pederson’s home to commit murder and robbery.

In June of 1978 Salcido was convicted of Officer Gibbs’ murder and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.

More Negative Charges Hint at the Change to Come

In August 1969 came another report critical of Sheriff Matt Carberry.

Matt Carberry was born in San Francisco on July 31, 1911. He joined the San Francisco Police Department in 1934 and as luck would have it his first day on the job was July 5th, known as "Bloody Thursday".
Thousands of striking dock workers shut down the port of San Francisco and dumped truckloads of produce and cargo onto the streets. Police officers and strikers fought with batons and bricks up and down Second Street. Two strikers were killed and one wounded at Steuart and Mission Streets when police fired shotguns into the crowd. Hundreds of other police and strikers were injured over a period of several weeks. Ultimately Governor Frank Merriam called in the National Guard to restore order.

The San Francisco Committee on Crime had been formed and its members appointed by Mayor Joseph Alioto to assess the City’s public safety policies. Headed by San Francisco attorneys William Orrick and Moses Lasky, all but one member of the 32 member blue ribbon group voted in favor of stripping Sheriff Carberry of his powers and possibly removing him from office.

Mayor Alioto disagreed with his hand-picked committee. “I do not believe Matt Carberry should be forced to resign or be railroaded out of office”, Alioto declared. The Mayor noted that Carberry recently “acknowledged a personal problem”, referring to Carberry’s admission that he had battled, but claimed to overcome, a drinking problem.

Alioto’s Crime Committee followed up with forty-four specific “examples of sloppy administration” in Sheriff Carberry’s county jail operations. That report included wide ranging criticisms including the lack of staff training; that San Bruno inmates were allowed to freely walk throughout the jail tiers; the critical need for inmate classification guidelines; and the poor enforcement of prisoner jail rules.

In November William H. Orrick, co-chair of the San Francisco Committee on Crime renewed his attacks on Carberry stating, “San Francisco does not need a sheriff at all.” Orrick advocated establishing a department of corrections to run San Francisco’s county jails.

Between January and mid-November 1969, sixteen inmates escaped from County Jail No. 2 San Bruno.

Sheriff Matt Carberry simply did not have the political instinct or clout to get the budget increases his Department desperately needed to increase deputy staffing and training.

Incredibly at that time, the Sheriff’s Department was hiring “temporary” deputy sheriffs to somehow try and mitigate its staffing problem. Those temp deputies received virtually no training or certification.

In 1970 a law school student named Tom Swope signed up to be a temporary deputy sheriff. Swope noted that would get phone calls from County Jail No. 2 at 11PM or midnight asking if he could come to the jail "to cover." He was told to wear a dark shirt and khaki or dark pants.

One night when he was called to report to the San Bruno jail, Swope arrived and was given a shotgun and told to walk around the jail building all night. He was also told it would be OK to come inside the jail if he needed to warm up. Tom asked under what circumstances should he shoot at something. He was told, "Don't worry, kid. The gun's not loaded."

There was a point in Matt Carberry’s troubled last term as Sheriff when he simply appeared to be a man being hounded for his inability to manage the responsibilities of his office and the problems in his personal life. Carberry was a reserved man and when he fought back in the newspapers with name-calling it was a sign of desperation from someone being pushed too hard.

On December 31, 1969, in refuting Pacifica Mayor Nick Gust’s comments that San Bruno was being “mismanaged”, Carberry told the San Francisco Chronicle, “My information is that Mayor Gust is a part-time mayor and part owner of a restaurant-bar down there, and that he was coached in the statement by one of the paid lackeys of the Crime Committee, Craig Broadus.”

Carberry had been recently admitted to French Hospital for what was termed “hypertension” and he wasn’t released for several days. Immediately after he left the hospital he blamed the problems at San Bruno on San Francisco’s Superior Court judges for their sentencing practices. “In 1966 we received some 5,000 convicted felons at San Bruno… …but who gets the heat from the Crime Committee? I do.”

On January 11, 1970 a disturbing and sad article was written by Ernest Lenn in the San Francisco Examiner, titled “Mayor, Supervisors Can’t Find Sheriff: ‘Ill With Laryngitis’”.

“Sheriff Matthew Carberry will be called on the carpet for questioning by Mayor Alioto as to Carberry’s whereabouts and actions last Friday.

“Carberry, according to his office, was home that day with a ‘strep throat’—but Alioto and Board of Supervisors President Dianne Feinstein heard otherwise.

“Alioto earlier last week announced he will ask the incoming Grand Jury to be impaneled Friday to investigate Carberry’s drinking and the County Jails.”

County Jail No. 2 deputy sheriffs told Crime Committee aides that “Carberry had telephoned the jail at 6:30 in the morning that day to announce that he would be sending 200 more deputies to San Bruno to improve security”. Carberry later denied making the statement.

Carberry told the Examiner that he was at home “ill with laryngitis” and he couldn’t answer the telephone [when Mayor Alioto called] because he could hardly speak.

“Because I had no breakfast I went early in the afternoon to Joe’s of Westlake to eat dinner. I had veal scaloppini with mushrooms. I stayed until late afternoon.”

An employee at Joe’s told investigators that Carberry “looked as though he had been drinking.” However, Carberry told The Examiner he had “only two coffee royals.” Although Carberry’s official car was parked outside, he said a friend drove him home.

In a New San Francisco, Trying to Bring New Life to County Jail No. 2

In 1970 Richard Hongisto resigned from the SF Police Department to take a broadcasting fellowship at public television station KQED. Hongisto briefly worked as a reporter for the KQED program "NewsRoom". When he announced his candidacy for sheriff in August of 1971 the Office of Sheriff paid $26,000 a year.

The election of 1971 proved to be the beginning of a dramatic sea change in the politics and future of San Francisco. New demographic forces were finding their footing and often found common cause in removing the old political guard in City Hall and the statehouse in Sacramento.

Specifically the burgeoning gay and lesbian communities, the long established black community, and a new influx of progressive voters coming to San Francisco from around the country were demanding reform and change.

Criminologist and former police officer Richard Hongisto ran for the office of sheriff in November of 1971 and in an upset defeated incumbent Matt Carberry and two other candidates.

Hongisto wasted little time in upending the institutional culture of the Sheriff’s Department and the comfortable political atmosphere long enjoyed by the City’s elected officials.

He was specifically determined to upgrade the San Bruno facility physical plant and to bring innovative prisoner programs into both County Jails 1 and 2. To accomplish those goals Hongisto understood he first had to push the City’s power structure to dramatically increase the Department’s annual budget.

The result? When Hongisto took office in 1972 the Sheriff’s Department budget was $3.8 million; by 1975 it was $6.4 million.

Hongisto made prisoner medical and dental care a priority and he reset the bar for rehabilitation programs inside both county jails. “At the main jail”, stated Hongisto, “too many prisoners have just sat around like zombies, doing nothing or aimlessly watching TV for hours in the tiers. We’re changing that.”

A $150,000 photographic studio was put in place at County Jail No. 2 along with a print press shop and a renewed focus on jail farm projects.

Training for deputy sheriffs also became a priority. Hongisto appointed Sgt. John Courtney as the Department’s training officer even though Courtney and the Deputy Sheriff’s Association had endorsed candidate Matt O’Connor over Hongisto.

Sheriff Hongisto was determined to make appointments based on ability.

But the unending drum beat of prisoner and physical plant issues continued at County Jail No. 2.

County Jail No. 2 had an outside prisoner recreation yard set behind the building on a raised dirt field. There were two wooden "guard" towers at either end of the fenced-in yard and during an average week different tiers of inmates would be scheduled for "yard" during the day watch. In the upper right is the road that led to the San Bruno compound, Moreland Drive, and the Sheriff's Department front gate and deputy station.

On March 22, 1972 there was an outbreak of apparent racial violence at San Bruno between Latino and white prisoners. Trying to downplay the incident, Sheriff Hongisto called it “clearly not a big racial deal. Race may be involved but not in any great degree.”

At 11:00 AM on Sunday February 25, 1973, with eleven deputies on duty, dozens of prisoners in the jail’s north wing began to light mattresses and paper on fire and began breaking windows in several tiers.

Deputies fought the fires and locked the jail down, but also called for help-- and over 80 armed officers responded from ten separate northern San Mateo County police agencies. Ultimately the damage was minimal, about $20,000. Six inmates, a deputy and one responding fireman from the State Division of Forestry in Belmont were slightly injured.

Sheriff Hongisto also responded and spent hours talking to jail prisoners, getting a litany of familiar complaints: the need for better food, better medical care, more exercise periods and more family visiting.

Hongisto again tried to downplay the incident, awkwardly calling it a “peaceful fire disturbance… not exactly a riot.” He quickly turned the heat on San Francisco Mayor Joe Alioto and the Board of Supervisors for more deputy sheriffs and civilian staffing.

The back and forth got nasty when Supervisor Terry Francois suggested that Hongisto had deliberately stirred up “the riot” at San Bruno to back up his ongoing budget requests for more staff and programs.

On February 28th, three days after the fire rampage, city of Pacifica officials announced they would file a lawsuit to “abate” the San Bruno jail. Claiming the jail violated a number of State codes, Pacifica City Attorney John Sherman called for San Francisco to remove its prisoners from County Jail No. 2 so the facility could be torn down as “a public nuisance.”

The suit, which named Mayor Alioto, Sheriff Hongisto and the Board of Supervisors, was filed on March 14, 1973. A pre-condition of the suit called for a superior court judge to order the immediate abandonment of the jail in anticipation of a long legal battle between Pacifica and the City and County of San Francisco.

Of course the lawsuit went nowhere, as did a similar “abatement” suit previously brought by San Mateo County officials in 1971. That suit was to be heard in neutral Marin County but was dropped when Hongisto was elected as San Francisco’s sheriff.

Prisoner Escapes, Terrorists Threats, and a Hongisto Surprise

On Sunday November 3, 1974 San Bruno had another unwanted historic event: the first female prisoner escapes.

Two women climbed up to the second floor medical office from the women’s jail recreation area then kicked out an unbarred window. They lowered themselves to freedom with the ubiquitous rope made from bedsheets.

The two escapees were arrested eighteen days later for shoplifting in Riverside, CA but there seemed no end to the jail’s problems. Officials in San Mateo County were carefully noting each escape to up their argument that the San Francisco jail in their county should be shut down.

Then an event occurred which was unique even for San Bruno.

On December 12, 1975 San Francisco radio station KPOO received an “open letter” from a terrorist group calling itself the New World Liberation Front (NWLF). The group announced that the City’s Board of Supervisors had until midnight the following Monday to immediately appropriate $100,000 for a prisoner health care program at the San Bruno jail.

The letter contained indirect threats to members of the Board of Supervisors and their families. “Certain of us can walk right by you in the streets or at City Hall and you don’t even know who we are. Justice and the element of surprise are on our side.”

The letter stated that San Bruno inmates would determine how the $100,000 would be spent “as they are in a position to best know what’s lacking medically.”

The demand was not met and on January 10, 1976 bombs hidden in See’s candy boxes were mailed to the homes of Supervisors John Barbagelata and Quentin Kopp. The explosives were discovered before they could explode.

The NWLF did not claim responsibility for the bombing attempts.

Previously, on August 20, 1975, a See’s candy bomb blew up in the front yard of Mayor Joseph Alioto’s home. At that time there was other turmoil in San Francisco as rank and file members of SF Police and Fire Departments staged an illegal work strike in a battle for higher pay.

On January 21, 1976 the NWLF publicly called off its “war” against the San Francisco Board of Supervisors due to the Health Department responding to a number of criticisms about the jail’s poor level of prisoner medical care.

No arrests were ever made in the bombing incidents.

Less than two years later a jaw-dropping political bomb hit the newspaper headlines. It would be the cause a far-ranging domino effect that would change San Francisco’s political landscape and its modern history.

On December 11, 1977 Richard Hongisto abruptly resigned as San Francisco Sheriff to become the chief of police in Cleveland, Ohio. He was sworn in on December 14th by Cleveland Mayor Dennis Kucinich.

San Francisco Mayor George Moscone immediately appointed Undersheriff James Denman as acting sheriff and then proceeded to take two months to decide who would be Hongisto’s official successor.

Denman was a former seminarian and US Navy officer who joined the Sheriff’s Department as a deputy in 1971 when a teaching career didn’t develop fast enough. In January 1976, after just five years in the department, Hongisto picked Denman to be his Undersheriff.

Hongisto publicly advocated for acting sheriff Denman to be his permanent successor and there was also considerable lobbying by others for a number of potential candidates. But Moscone finally named Eugene Brown as Sheriff on February 11, 1978.

Gene Brown became California’s first African American sheriff. The state’s first elected African American sheriff was Siskiyou County Sheriff Charlie Byrd in 1986.

Brown was a former USF basketball star who had been a sheriff’s deputy in the early 1960s and a San Francisco Police officer in 1964. At the time of his appointment Brown was the federal Small Business Association’s compliance and civil rights director for eight western states.

But Gene Brown wasn’t an experienced administrator and the demands of directing a major law enforcement agency in the churning seas of San Francisco politics quickly proved to be overwhelming.

The two years Brown would spend as Hongisto’s replacement were rocky to say the least— highly publicized prisoner escapes, numerous inmate releases in error, and the opposition of an entrenched old guard found Brown in a fight for his political life when he ran for a full term as sheriff in the general election of 1979.

In a crowded field of candidates, pubic advocate attorney Michael Hennessey won a December run-off election after the November election did not give any candidate over 50% of the vote.

21st Century Jail Reform versus 20th Century Jails

When Michael Hennessey announced his candidacy for sheriff on June 4, 1979 the SF Chronicle described him as "a protege of former Sheriff Richard Hongisto". Hennessey had been working as an attorney in the Sheriff's Department for the previous five years. The son of a country doctor in Manilla, Iowa Hennessey was an outspoken jail and prison reformer.

Sheriff Michael Hennessey took office in January 1980. Despite a fresh approach to inmate programs, continued improvements to the physical plant, and well publicized attempts to replace the aging facility, the San Bruno jail would be an ongoing challenge for Hennessey to administer for the next 26 years.

The legend of County Jail #3 was enhanced throughout its history by a series of colorful events and stories that seemed to infuse the building. Some are public and some are (gratefully) not.

As part of the vibrant county jail speakers series begun by Sheriff Hennessey, the Reverend Jesse Jackson talks with SF County Jail prisoners in the San Bruno yard. His August 19, 1983 visit happened at a time when Jackson was contemplating a run for the presidency.

In the early 1980s Sheriff Hennessey established a speakers’ program for inmates at the jail that brought in such luminaries as the Reverend Jesse Jackson (August 1983), writer/poet Alice Walker (December 1983, the year she won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Color Purple”) and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley (January 1986).

In July of 1984 an informal event was held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the San Bruno jail. Sheriff Michael Hennessey invited the three former living SF Sheriffs to join him at the old jail-- Eugene Brown, Richard Hongisto, and Matt Carberry.

It was an extraordinary moment in San Francisco Sheriff’s Department history as the four sheriffs met on the jail grounds, genially traded stories and posed for pictures.

Also adding to the Bruno legend was the November 1984 arrival of seven large bison, moved from the Golden Gate Park buffalo paddock to a large pasture on the jail grounds just across the road from the women’s jail.

The animals had a non-transmittable form of muscular tuberculosis, and when a new herd of fourteen healthy bison was scheduled to be moved to Golden Gate Park the infected bison needed a new home. So the animals were “retired” to County Jail #3.

For the next several years county jail prisoners at San Bruno had a unique front row seat to watch the meanderings, care and feeding of a herd of bison; including the birth of several baby bison.

In the elections of 1992 and 1994 San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan and Sheriff Hennessey supported bond measures to build a replacement jail at San Bruno. Since both measures were general obligation bonds they each required a two-thirds majority of all votes to pass. Both the 1992 and 1994 bond measures failed despite receiving over 50% of the votes cast.

From the 1980s onward San Francisco’s jails were awash in overcrowding and housing conditions litigation that created political battles between two groups: those who wanted to replace the City’s crumbling old jails with humane, modern facilities for incarcerated men and women, and those who insisted on defining “jail replacement” as “jail expansion.”

County Jail #1 on the 6th floor of the Hall of Justice was already under a federal consent decree following a 1978 jail overcrowding lawsuit. At one point there were 120 prisoners sleeping on the facility’s floors and another 350 San Francisco county jail prisoners housed in rented space at the Alameda County Jail in Santa Rita.

Sheriff Hennessey was in an interesting position. Although the City and County had been sued and was under several federal consent decrees, these legal actions actually supported his primary goals: to replace the San Bruno jail, to end overcrowding throughout San Francisco’s jails, and to fund ongoing jail programs and mechanisms for supervised release from jail.

The County Jail #6 "Annex" facility was constucted a hundred feet north of the main San Bruno jail building. In an effort to ease jail overcrowing this direct supervision facility was built with funds cobbled together from state and federal sources. The facility had continuing physical plant problems and there were safety issues for staff and prisoners.

In the late 1980s a deal was struck with the federal government to fund the building of a 350 bed dorm-type jail next to the old San Bruno jail. The idea was that a certain number of federally-charged inmates could be housed there and the feds also needed beds.

The California State Board of Corrections also earmarked $1 million in state bonds for what was being called the San Francisco County Jail Annex.

Officially designated as County Jail #6, the concrete “tilt-up” building contained six dorms and a control room. Almost immediately the facility had a leaking roof and floor, and a non-functional ventilation system. That building was temporarily helpful but ultimately was not the solution to San Francisco’s jail overcrowding problem.

In July 1992 U.S. District Judge William Orrick ruled that the San Bruno jail violated the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, specifically that the old jail prevented a person’s right to due process and that the jail’s conditions violated the Constitution’s 8th Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.          

Money was found to build an expanded work furlough facility and a small matching bond measure managed to pass that allowed construction of a new booking/release and housing jail built in the back parking lot of the Bryant Street Hall of Justice on 7th Street. The facilities were completed in 1992.

From both the outside and inside County Jails #1 and #2 appear to be one building, but are actually two separate buildings attached at various floors. The first floor of CJ#1 at the far left is the Sheriff's Department booking and release facility; the floors above are CJ#2 housing units, where all female custodies are housed. The rounded tower on the right is the front of a full length structure next to the jail, primarily administrative.

Since there were no funds to staff either facility the jails remained unused until 1994 when the housing building was finally staffed and opened.

It wasn’t until 1996 that the attached booking/release facility received staff funding and was fully opened. Initially known as County Jails #8 and #9, they are now designated as County Jail #1 intake and booking and County Jail #2, which primarily houses women custodies and a classification assessment component.

In 1994 California’s “three strikes” law went into effect which further increased the number of pre-trial prisoners held in the State’s local county jails. As San Francisco and dozens of other California counties scrambled to find jail beds, Sheriff Hennessey explored several creative solutions—from buying a jail barge that could be moored along the City’s waterfront to taking over the US Navy’s abandoned jail brig on Treasure Island.

As Hennessey’s Chief of Staff Eileen Hirst later accurately described it, “Throughout this period the air was thick with political footballs.”

When Willie Brown was elected mayor in 1996 he began working on a uniquely creative way to fund a replacement jail for the San Bruno facility, now 62 years old.

Called certificates of participation, Mayor Brown’s plan involved a private company funding the construction of a new jail on the grounds of the San Bruno complex, then leasing the building back to the City until all the construction costs were completely paid off.

Although this innovative approach to secure new jail financing took a long time to be worked out, approved, and implemented, San Francisco had finally found a solution to its jail conditions, security, and overcrowding issues.

It is estimated that the annual cost for the new jail’s funding package is about $15 million a year and will be paid off in 2033.

On Friday August 18, 2006 after years of construction delays and the usual contract litigation the new County Jail #5 facility was officially opened, located just a few dozen yards away from the 72 year old County Jail #3 building.

The massive, ultra-modern direct supervision-designed facility, officially called County Jail #5, lies in the shadow of the coastal hills in rural San Mateo County and has the capacity to hold some 768 prisoners.

Over a twelve hour period on August 18th 418 prisoners were escorted without incident from their dank County Jail #3 cells and into the new County Jail 5 facility. (The original County Jail No. 2 had been renamed “#3” a number of years before.)

Another 300 prisoners were moved out of the “tilt-up” County Jail Annex building on the grounds and into the new jail.

In its final few years of operation the old County Jail #3 was remarkably functional thanks to the sworn deputies and supervisors who operated and managed the old jail, and the civilian maintenance staff who somehow kept the aging physical plant operational.

But ultimately the oldest working county jail in California was an increasingly dangerous place for both Sheriff’s Department staff and the prisoners housed there.

A 72 Year Journey Back to the Land

Typical of the construction funding for the new jail, the budgeted cost to demolish the old jail, just under $2 million, was allocated and then yanked back by the City over several years.

January 4, 2012 and Sheriff Mike Hennessey "christens" the wrecking ball that will start to dismantle the now 78 year old County Jail #3.

Finally in 2011 the money was in place and a contractor chosen to first remove hazardous material and then bring the old building down. It was estimated that about 75% of the building debris could be recycled.

On Wednesday January 4, 2012 a huge crane with a wrecking ball was positioned next to the front administrative wing of the jail. Sheriff Michael Hennessey, days away from retiring after thirty-two years as the longest tenured Sheriff in the City’s history, was present.

Before the wrecking ball started to swing, Hennessey happily christened it with a bottle of sparkling cider (since alcohol is prohibited on jail grounds). Once it began in earnest, the removal of recycled materials, demolition work, and complete removal of debris would take the better part of five months to be completed.

Sheriff Hennessey told SF Chronicle reporter Rachel Gordon, “I ran for sheriff of San Francisco because I believed it was wrong to have prisoners living in and deputies working in such dangerous conditions.

“Never did I realize that getting it done would take years of bureaucratic wrangling, a federal class-action lawsuit, two failed bond measures and a U.S. District Court judge declaring the conditions so bad that they violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”

Gordon noted that saved for posterity was the huge, ornate city seal that hung over the front entrance of the jail. At the time plans were also in the works to save a complete jail cell for later display.

Looking at the site of County Jail 3 today it is difficult to re-imagine the sheer immensity of the old seven story jail. And it is certainly hard to conjure the myriad of human stories played out in the now empty space above the building’s former footprint.

It was a place where thousands of people worked, temporarily lived and tried to survive as best they could for almost three quarters of a century.
































SF Main Library: "NewsBank" San Francisco Chronicle archives; SF Main Library: SF Examiner and SF News Call-Bulletin archives; San Francisco Main Library: "SF Board of Supervisors Journal of Proceedings 1906-1933" collection; “San Francisco Municipal Record”, August 1934; “P.S. A Memoir” by Pierre Salinger; St. Martin’s Press 1995; “The Black Hole of San Francisco” by George Cothran, San Francisco Weekly, August 22-September 2, 1997; Photographer Robert Gumpert; Michael Hennessey; Eileen Hirst; Richard Dyer.