Jail as old as Alcatraz has done its timeBy Carol Pogash
Having just turned 18, Billy Besk set out from his home in New Hampshire to visit San Francisco.
Along the way, Mr. Besk dropped into Iowa, where he found some marijuana growing at the roadside. He stuffed about 20 ounces into a big red duffel bag and continued to California, intending, he said recently, "to make some money" during his trip.
But in San Francisco he was stopped by the police because he resembled the suspect in a car theft. Officers found the marijuana, and Mr. Besk was sent to County Jail No. 3.
That is where this 1989 journey took a terrible turn. Because at County Jail No. 3, a cavernous, crumbling, overcrowded place, Mr. Besk was so brutalized by other inmates that his case became a symbol of the jail system's failings.
In March, after years of legal wrangling, the jail will be replaced by a $137 million building that was designed to prevent a repeat of Mr. Besk's ordeal nearly 15 years ago.
"The worst things that can happen in a jail," said Sheriff Michael Hennessey of San Francisco, "are someone escapes, someone commits suicide, someone is raped, there's a riot or the staff beats up on a prisoner."
Architecture can help prevent most of them, Sheriff Hennessey said.
The design of six-story Jail No. 3 is typical of the linear jails built through the 1960's. Guards can peer inside cells only when they walk down the tiers. The new jail has a cloverleaf shape, with each of the four leaves, or pods, divided in half. At the center of each pod, a deputy sheriff or two will guard at most 96 people and can view all the inmates all the time.
But the changes to Jail No. 3 have not come easily.
Speaking by telephone from his home in Merrimack, N.H., Mr. Besk recalled that on many days, a group of inmates beat him and shoved his head in a toilet. Finally, he was confronted by an inmate trustee, a man with a history of sexual assaults, who covered the bars of his cell with a blanket, then raped him.
Long before Mr. Besk's case, Sheriff Hennessey and others in and out of law enforcement had tried to address the jail system's failings.
Built by the Works Progress Administration in 1934, Jail No. 3, the oldest operating county jail in California, was once known as Sunshine Jail Farm. It was a place for alcoholics to dry out here in San Bruno, several miles south of San Francisco.
The cranks on five-inch-wide windows are so stiff that some stay permanently open. The boiler burst long ago; a new one sits outside on a rented flatbed truck. At times, the jail became so crowded that inmates slept on tables. Since then, the sheriff's department has been ordered by the courts to relieve the overcrowding.
Sheriff Hennessey has been trying to change the system throughout his 23 years in office and for years before he was elected. Others involved included a federal judge, William Orrick, who was part of Robert F. Kennedy's Justice Department, and a lawyer, Mort Cohen, who defended inmates after the Attica State Prison riot in New York. As a law student in the early 1970's, Mr. Hennessey was impressed by a report on the poor condition of San Francisco's jails; the report was written by Mr. Orrick, then a lawyer leading a city committee on the conditions in jails. Mr. Orrick later became the judge in the lawsuit filed after Mr. Besk's rape.
After law school, Mr. Hennessey was a Vista worker specializing in improving jails. In need of a lawyer to file suits on behalf of inmates, he saw in Mr. Cohen "a kindred soul willing to take on unpopular and not very lucrative cases," Sheriff Hennessey said.
Aided by deputy sheriffs who covertly sent him manila envelopes with incident reports from the jails, Mr. Cohen filed lawsuits over the next 20 years that resulted in the building of four new jails in San Francisco.
"You don't get safer jails without lawsuits," Sheriff Hennessey said.
In 1989, Mr. Cohen was searching for the person who had "the most horrific" experience caused by jail overcrowding.
"That," he said, "was Billy."
Mr. Besk's rape occurred when two inmates were crammed into each 6-by-8 cell and when, during lunch breaks, one guard oversaw 300 inmates.
Mr. Cohen sued, contending that jail officials had denied Mr. Besk his 14th Amendment right to due process by failing to protect him from harm. In a settlement, Mr. Besk was awarded $145,000, and the city agreed to add guards, stop doubling up inmates and separate predators from their prey: the youngest and most vulnerable prisoners.
But by 1994, Jail No. 3 was in violation of the agreement, Mr. Cohen said. He returned to Judge Orrick's courtroom, this time citing the circumstances of Arnold Jones, a homeless Vietnam veteran arrested after a street fight.
Because of overcrowding, the jail was mixing the physically and mentally ill. Mr. Jones, who Mr. Cohen says was "tense, anxious and combative," shared a cell with an inmate with AIDS who repeatedly threatened to bite him.
The revamped settlement specified that Jail No. 3 be replaced with a modern facility, to be paid for by the city and county.
"I don't care how much a jail costs as long as people don't get raped," Mr. Besk said of the deal.
Mr. Besk's story, told and retold over the years, led to improvement in "direct supervision" in jails, or the ability of a guard to see and interact with inmates. But in the telephone interview, Mr. Besk said that even that might not be enough.
He said, "It was a guard who got me raped." A female guard, he said, opened the cell door for his rapist and laughed when she let him out afterward.
Mr. Cohen, who had never heard that claim, said he found it unsettling. Had he known, Mr. Cohen said, "I wouldn't have stopped before I did something about it."
Sheriff Hennessey said the same.
Sometime in the next year, Jail No. 3 will be razed. Only bits and pieces will be saved. Alcatraz, also built in 1934 and now a tourist attraction, plans to use the jail's old-fashioned locks and keys for replacement parts.
Mr. Besk, now a construction worker, said he would remember Jail No. 3 as the place where he learned how to fight.
"You never have to do that in New Hampshire," he said. "All you have to do here is canoe, fish and be happy."
Copyright ©2004 The New York Times. Published 01/05/2004.