Community Letter from San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju
APRIL 2020

Defending our Clients & Communities in the Time of COVID-19

Dear Friends, Allies, Community Members,
It’s now been over a month since the shelter-in-place took effect in San Francisco and I know things have been incredibly challenging for everyone. This is particularly true for our community members who are incarcerated, who have loved ones on the inside, who are experiencing housing instability, and who are struggling to get food on the table.   

I am so glad that I was able to see many of you at my community inauguration and our office’s Black History Month celebration back in February. At that event, I made my commitment to the community through a community oath and I, along with my entire office, are embodying that oath every day as this pandemic continues to impact our community’s physical, psychological, and economic health.

The Public Defender’s Office has been recognized as an essential city service, which has allowed us to continue to fighting for our community every single day, in the courtroom, in the jails, at City Hall, in the Capital, in the media, in person with protective gear where necessary, and remotely otherwise.

I wanted to send out this community newsletter because I thought it might be helpful for people to better understand what exactly our office is doing during this time to protect our clients, their families and communities from the coronavirus.

Our number one priority during this crisis is to release folks from incarceration and into safe spaces where they can shelter-in-place, and we are fighting for that in a number of different ways, which are outlined below. It is also our priority to ensure that we continue to provide the excellent representation and advocacy that our clients and their families deserve.

I am so proud of our entire staff, our clients and their families, and everyone in San Francisco who has bravely stepped up to help keep each other safe and healthy during this time of unprecedented change. 

In Community & Solidarity,

Mano Raju
San Francisco Public Defender


Twitter: @ManoRajuPD @sfdefender
Facebook: @Mano Raju @San Francisco Public Defender’s Office

To follow our ongoing response to the COVID-19 public health emergency - including demand letters sent to government agencies and officials, and news stories, please visit our website.

If you have any questions related to the information in this newsletter, please contact our Public Information Officer Valerie Ibarra at valerie.ibarra@sfgov.org .

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Fighting for our Incarcerated

Community Members

My team fights every day to release those locked up in the San Francisco County Jail, immigration detention facilities, state prisons, and our youth in Juvenile Hall.  We know they are at tremendous risk during this public health crisis.  It is impossible for incarcerated people to practice social distancing in overcrowded facilities, where simple items like soap are often a luxury and people are forced to share bathrooms and bunk beds.

Fighting to Release People from San Francisco County Jail

Thanks in large part to the tireless work of our public defenders, the San Francisco jail population has shrunk by 38 percent since March 2nd -- from 1126 people to 701 people as of this morning.  Every day, our team pushes to get more people released.

At the start of the pandemic, we were successful in getting people out who were nearing the end of their county jail sentence, or who were medically vulnerable. Since then, we have continued to fight for our clients’ early release, many of whom are in jail awaiting trial, so that they can shelter-in-place safely.

One of the clients that our office won emergency release for is a veteran named Terry who was featured on a recent episode of This American Life

We have also been able, for the first time, to release all of our clients who suffer from mental illness and participate in Behavioral Health Court, and have been able to place many of them in treatment programs where they can receive the rehabilitation and services they need while staying safe.   

Over the last week, we learned that two people in County Jail 2 tested positive for the coronavirus. While we knew it was nearly inevitable the virus would make its way into the jail, I am deeply concerned about what this means for the safety of our clients in jail. These new developments have made us even more determined to get folks out of detention and to protect our community inside the jails.

As we fight to get folks released from jail, we are also working daily with the Board of Supervisors, the Mayor's Office, the Department of Public Health, and community partners to advocate that the City secure sufficient hotel rooms, so that all our clients can safely shelter-in-place upon release. 

Fighting to Release Children from

Juvenile Hall

From the beginning of this outbreak, we have urged the Chief of Juvenile Probation to expedite the release of all remaining youth who are locked in custody during this pandemic, as we work alongside all of our system partners to make sure that each of these children has a safe place to go. 

As of this morning, there are 10 children in juvenile hall -- 8 boys and 2 girls. This is a truly historic low in an institution containing 150 beds. This reflects the amazing work of our Juvenile Unit as well as our community partners who have continued to advocate for the safe release and appropriate placement of youth.

Fighting to Release People from Overcrowded Prisons

Our post-conviction project continues to identify individuals in prison who are eligible for resentencing and early release under new state laws. We are in communication with Governor Newsom’s office to advocate for the governor to exercise his substantial powers to reduce the prison population. 

Fighting to Release People from I.C.E. Detention

Our Immigration Unit defends people who are fighting deportation. Many of our clients, and thousands of immigrants across the country, are being held in detention centers by I.C.E. due to civil immigration violations. These centers are shockingly unsanitary and ill-equipped to protect the health and safety of those who are forced to sleep in massive congregate quarters with limited access to hygiene products or proper medical care. That is why we have taken bold actions to protect those whose lives are at risk.

Since the COVID crisis began, our Immigration Unit has freed 12 people from immigrant detention so they can be reunited with their families.  We have also sued ICE twice in coalition with community partners.
First, we did so to challenge congregate living spaces on behalf of 13 medically-vulnerable detained individuals being held in California.  As a result of this advocacy, 8 of our clients have been released already.  One of those clients is Charles Joseph, and he is featured in The Chronicle as well as in this powerful video that went viral exposing the conditions in detention.
Men in the Mesa Verde Detention Center read a complaint they sent to ICE on March 25th.
Eighty-five men at the Mesa Verde Detention Center read their petition they wrote to ICE on March 25, 2020, and offered a rare and telling glimpse into immigration detention.
We then filed a second lawsuit this week on behalf of over 400 immigrants who are detained in two ICE detention centers-- Mesa Verde Detention Center and Yuba County Jail.

Defending our Clients Everyday in the Courtroom

Chief Attorney Matt Gonzalez and Misdemeanor Manager Mark Jacobs march into the Hall of Justice on March 17, 2020, ready to get to work on the first day of a downsized court.
Since Shelter-in-Place began, we have fought to keep the courts open to ensure that incarcerated people are not left without access to the legal system.  Our attorneys are in the courtroom every day, filing release motions, arguing with prosecutors and judges, and advocating to get folks released from detention as soon as possible. We have taken a number of measures to increase social distancing and responsible hygienic practices in the courthouse so that our clients, attorneys, and courtroom staff are as safe as possible. 
Our IT Unit has also been working with the courts and the Sheriff to install the basic technology needed to allow some hearings and visits to continue remotely during this public health crisis. We are grateful for this temporary measure, but are also being thoughtful and vigilant about how technology is being used in courtrooms to make sure it doesn’t hinder peoples’ ability to get fair hearings and trials. 

As always, clients with questions about court dates can continue to call our main office at (415) 553-1671 during business hours M-F 8am-5pm and they will be connected to their attorneys ASAP.

Fighting to Limit Unnecessary 
Police Contact 

In the interest of protecting the health and wellbeing of all San Franciscans, we have urged Police Chief Bill Scott to minimize unnecessary police contact with the community and cease citing or arresting people unless there was a clear and present danger of imminent physical harm.

I also asked that they develop protocols to avoid the spread of the coronavirus in all spaces and equipment operated by the Police Department to help balance the concerns of our office, our clients and their communities, and the general public.  We want to keep people safe, and also fight to protect Black and Brown communities from being unfairly targeted by police at this time.

Continuing to Advocate for our Community into the Future

The pandemic has drawn increased attention to the cracks in our systems that threaten to swallow up the people in our communities who have been repeatedly pushed out of “The Circle of Human Concern,” to quote civil rights thought leader John Powell. However, as the cracks become more visible, there is also more opportunity for restoration. This is the space our office works in everyday, and we are hopeful that from this experience, more people will choose to join our fight, to help us in our effort to change course, to build something different and to make different choices about how we respond to harm and how we care for each other.  
In San Francisco, our vision of a new future has included closing our County Jail 4 and our Juvenile Hall, and creating a robust mental health care system so that jail is not used as a de-facto hospital for people who are ill. We helped write legislation that passed last year to close Juvenile Hall by December 31st, 2021, and fought to implement Mental Health SF,  a plan for major systemic Mental Health reform.  
This past month, we helped write legislation, introduced by members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, to require that the City close County Jail 4 by November 1, 2020.  We ask you to join us in the fight to close this jail, as part of our collective efforts to end the practice of using incarceration as the primary tool to address mental health issues, homelessness, and drug addiction in our community.  And, perhaps even more importantly, we ask that you join us in investing in a new vision, rooted in community care. If you want to get more involved in any of these advocacy efforts, please email Carolyn Goossen in our office at  Carolyn.Goossen@sfgov.org or go to https://nonewsfjail.org.
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