The Sheriff in Limbo

Scott Lucas | November 22, 2013 | Story Profiles

"I really want you to hear this,” says Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, grabbing my arm. We’re standing on the sidelines of a prisoner support group in San Francisco’s San Bruno jail. One of the inmates is summarizing his two months in an experimental rehabilitation program that’s being pioneered here: Twice a day for 20 minutes, 20 or so participants sit down, close their eyes, and inwardly recite a mantra. They are practicing transcendental meditation.

"With the meditation, I can tell myself that maybe I was the guy who was not doing right,” the prisoner says. “I can’t think of a solution at the moment when I’m angry. So I need to take some quiet time. I got to get away. I can say, this is what is happening to me, and I will get over it.”

The people in the room—the sheriff, the inmates, their facilitator, even the guards—applaud. After the group concludes with the “Serenity Prayer,” Mirkarimi seeks out the man who spoke. “Sir,” the sheriff says, “I really enjoyed what you had to say.” Soon a group of prisoners has formed around the two of them—not to complain about the food or the guards, but to praise transcendental meditation. “I have anger issues,” one says. “But it’s beautiful. My brothers in here tell me they see the changes in me. It’s like getting high without being high.”

Mirkarimi smiles. The moment is a vindication of sorts: He introduced the meditation program to the jail. And it’s not surprising that he relates to the prisoner’s words. The struggle with anger is something that Mirkarimi knows a lot about.

“It was the most painful year in my life, and probably my family’s life,” Mirkarimi says, back in his office on the top floor of City Hall. “I hated myself.” He’s referring, of course, to the ugly and surreal public ordeal that took place after he bruised his wife, Eliana Lopez, during a fight on New Year’s Day 2012, shortly before he was to be sworn into office. It felt as if the entire city had watched the tearful video of Lopez filmed by a neighbor soon after the altercation.

The case divided San Franciscans: To his foes, Mirkarimi was a wife abuser; to his supporters, the victim of an Orwellian witch hunt. Mirkarimi pleaded guilty to charges of false imprisonment and was sentenced in March 2012 to three years of probation and a year of domestic violence counseling. Denounced by the mayor and abandoned by the political establishment, he didn’t see an end to his nine-month nightmare until October 2012, when he narrowly survived a vote of the Board of Supervisors to remove him from office.

Although Mirkarimi persevered, he remains in political limbo. Mayor Ed Lee is an implacable foe. George Gascón, the district attorney who prosecuted Mirkarimi, has opposed the sheriff’s signature initiative to replace the San Francisco jail. Even his putative allies on the Board of Supervisors won’t talk about him on the record. Despite these blows to his political aspirations, Mirkarimi appears as relentlessly optimistic about his future as ever. Far from keeping his head down, he has embarked on a series of high-profile initiatives—chief among them the construction of a new jail to replace the seismically unsound and outdated facilities on the sixth and seventh floors of downtown’s Hall of Justice. It’s a goal that any San Francisco sheriff would be hard-pressed to achieve, let alone one operating out of political Siberia.

The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, while easily overlooked—it doesn’t garner headlines like the police department—is essential to the city’s functioning. The sheriff oversees six major jails, around 840 sworn officers, and a budget of $180 million. The department runs a charter school that operates both within the San Bruno jail and in the outside community. It carries out evictions and handles security at civic buildings like San Francisco General Hospital (recently the site of controversy after a patient disappeared and was found dead weeks later in a stairwell). Like a cargo ship in the Bay, it’s not glamorous, but it’s massive—and vital.

Mirkarimi points with pride to his department’s progressive programs. The Five Keys Charter high school at the San Bruno jail, the first charter in the nation to operate in such a facility, continues to be a model (the Los Angeles jail system recently adopted it). Mirkarimi’s predecessor as sheriff, Michael Hennessey, introduced the program, but Mirkarimi has expanded it, adding classes in vocational skills like culinary work, horticulture, and bicycle repair. (The school gets the bikes legally, Mirkarimi is quick to assure me.) For graduates, he points out, the recidivism rate is just 45 percent—much lower than the overall rate for California, which was 78 percent in 2011.

Mirkarimi also expanded the jail’s visitation program and allowed families to schedule visits online, easing the process for visitors who must navigate public transportation out to San Bruno. “We should have already done that,” he says. “It felt like a relic.”

But the major test of the sheriff’s diminished—perhaps depleted—political capital will be his attempt to replace the archaic jail at the Hall of Justice with a new facility. He describes the current conditions as “worthy of UN condemnation,” and it’s hard to disagree. The medical office is so cramped that oxygen tanks are stored in front of the reception desk. A family visitation room is housed in a converted shower, and cells have dangerously minimal sight lines for the guards. If San Bruno is the AT&T Park of jails, the Hall of Justice facility is the decaying, sewage-filled Oakland Coliseum.

The jail, unfortunately, may be as hard to replace as the Coliseum. The Board of Supervisors has authorized spending only $10 million on the project, which will cost $290 million—an outlay that might rise to as much as $500 million, including interest and inflation, by the expected completion date of 2019. The supes recently agreed to apply for an additional $80 million in state funding, but still need to sign off on the project itself. The proposal has drawn criticism from Gascón and other elected officials, the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle, and left-wing groups like Californians United for a Responsible Budget, which opposes prison construction statewide. The naysayers argue that San Francisco’s prison system, which currently operates at around two-thirds of capacity, has no need of a new facility. But it’s easy to detect an unspoken agenda as well: to reject everything that Mirkarimi wants in hopes of his defeat in the next election, in 2016. If Mirkarimi suspects that this is what’s going on, he doesn’t say.

The sheriff has already been rebuffed on several lower-stakes initiatives. He tried to secure funding for an extra staff member for his office’s Eviction Assistance Service and Education Project, which helps find temporary housing for residents turned out of their homes. The Board of Supervisors said no. He tried to get approval for sheriff ’s deputies to work security alongside SFPD officers at large events like Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and the Chinese New Year’s parade—after all, they are sworn law enforcement officers too, and they cost 20 percent less in salary. No luck. And even though he has written five or six letters to the mayor (“The first one was about reconciliation,” he says. “The rest were about policy issues”), Ed Lee has still not spoken to him.

Even the supervisors who voted to keep Mirkarimi as sheriff, like David Campos and John Avalos, are loath to say anything about him on the record. There’s little political upside to standing with a man who has been shunned and shamed, but plenty of downside—in particular, the risk of getting on the wrong side of Mayor Lee. Michael Hennessey, the progressive stalwart who ran the sheriff’s office for 32 years, is one of the few who are willing to weigh in.

Hennessey is now retired and living in Red Bluff. He and Mirkarimi talk from time to time, but, as Mirkarimi puts it, “He grants me the privilege of not giving advice unless I ask for it.” Asked to evaluate Mirkarimi’s performance so far, Hennessey emails, “The department seems to be running well in spite of the childish banishment by the mayor. Ross seems to be doing some progressive things, like expanding prisoner programs and visiting, and some sheriff-y things, like fighting for a new jail. For a first term not even half over, I’d give him a B or a B+ if you look beyond the false imprisonment plea.”

If Mirkarimi the public official faces an uncertain future, Mirkarimi the man seems at peace. By all accounts, his family life is once again stable and happy. His City Hall office is filled with pictures of his wife—now back in the country and reunited with Mirkarimi—and his son Theo, from whom he was legally separated for a time. Theo is now four years old and in preschool.

“Everybody asks about my family—usually it’s the first or second question,” Mirkarimi says. “The narrative was so unbelievably distorted last year.” His household even added a rescued boxer puppy recently. “My son had a phobia of dogs,” he says, “but now he calls her his little sister.”

Looking back on the whole excruciating episode, Mirkarimi expresses contrition and a determination to turn it to good. “I’m sorry about everyone in San Francisco who had to go through it,” he says. “I’ll never forgive myself. But you move forward. And I’m more motivated than ever to demonstrate to people that I can be the sheriff they want me to be and, more important, the family man that I aspire to be.”

The voters will have a say in whether Mirkarimi achieves his first goal. “[Even] in normal times, he would have a very tough reelection,” says Corey Cook, associate professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. “But then layer on top this very public incident—and a very flawed response to it—and I’d say he has a snowball’s chance in the Mojave Desert.” That very slim chance remains, Cook says, only because the scandal wasn’t performance-related. “It’s the same as when a criminal defense attorney says to the jury, you may not like my client, but...” Cook believes that voters will probably judge Mirkarimi on the crime rate (over which his department has limited control), and that issues like the new prison may be too “inside baseball” to matter. What Mirkarimi has to avoid is a strong challenger, especially one drawn from the ranks of the department—someone, for example, like Paul Miyamoto, who narrowly lost to Mirkarimi in 2011.

Like the meditating prisoners in his jail, Mirkarimi wants to be rehabilitated, but he’s still on probation. Whether the San Francisco political establishment— not to mention the voters who look to it for leadership and endorsements—lifts that probation remains to be seen.

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