The best sheriff in America

San Francisco's Michael Hennessey, the longest-serving sheriff in California, has brought art and acupuncture to his jails, thinks the war on drugs is a fiasco and likes listening to "loud, obnoxious music."

Published June 7, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

As sheriff of the city and county of San Francisco, Michael Hennessey runs the county jails, provides security in the courtrooms and enforces civil judgments, such as evictions and wage garnishments. But during more than 19 years in the post, Hennessey, 52, has significantly expanded his duties, addressing problems of crime and poverty with innovative rehabilitation and education programs -- from providing acupuncture for drug-addicted prisoners to offering employment counseling to ex-offenders. I met with Hennessey at his cavernous office in San Francisco's newly renovated City Hall. With the scent of freshly applied varnish tickling our noses, we discussed the origins of criminal behavior, the difficulty of enforcing laws you don't personally agree with and the tenuous link between entertainment and teen violence.

How did you become sheriff?

I came to San Francisco to attend law school in 1970. When I finished in 1974, I became a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) lawyer; it was sort of the domestic version of the Peace Corps. I made $190 a month, plus food stamps and medical. During my one year with VISTA, I started a legal-services program for county jail inmates; then I peddled it around for grant money. I ran that program from '74 to '79.

In 1979, San Francisco changed sheriffs. I was unhappy with how the new sheriff was running the department, so I decided I was going to quit and get, as my mother would say, "a real job." Some people in the department suggested that I run for sheriff instead. I hadn't considered it before. Aside from voting, I'd never been involved in politics. But I knew a lot about jails because I'd worked inside them for five years. So I quit my job and ran for sheriff full time for five months in 1979. I got elected and have been here ever since.

You had Richard Ramirez, the "Nightstalker," in your custody. What was it like to deal with such an infamous character?

Whenever you have a high-profile celebrity prisoner, you have additional problems. Ramirez, in particular, was a very bizarre guy. When he was in our jail, he had already been convicted of 13 murders in Los Angeles. He was with us off and on for three years. He was more staff-intensive than your common, everyday prisoner. He had lots of girlfriends that visited him and lots of media that wanted to visit him -- everybody from "Evening Magazine" to Hustler to local press. He enjoyed giving interviews. He was a media hound. With that many visitors, you have concerns that someone's going to give him something improper, or that he'll do something improper with somebody. We certainly did find things in his cell that he shouldn't have had. When he was ultimately transferred to San Quentin, he had a handcuff key up his butt, if you'll pardon the expression.

What other notorious criminals have you had in your custody?

We had a very scary fellow named Clifford Bouldin, who's now on death row. He went to gay clubs and seduced people. He took a physician home to his apartment in Twin Peaks and cut his stomach open, which killed him. He was a real tough guy. He had actually bitten off the end of his little finger and wore it around his neck like part of a necklace. His message was, don't mess with me.

But we have 2,000 people in our jail, and about a third of them are in for drug offenses. Another third are in for property offenses: credit card, burglary, auto theft, things like that. The last third are in for violent crimes. On any day we have 50 or 60 people charged with murder; they're usually the most interesting people in terms of their backgrounds.

Is there a line a criminal crosses -- like murder or molesting children -- where he or she can no longer be reformed?

The vast, vast majority of people convicted of crimes have the capacity to reform and not commit any additional crimes. A small percentage don't [commit more crimes]. But when I say a small percentage you have to consider that in America there are over a million people in prison, so even a small percentage is a large number of people.

On my staff, I currently have several ex-offenders, including, on a very high level, a person who was convicted of murder and did seven years in prison. He is one of the most honorable people I have known, though even he will admit that what he did was horrible. He was 18 years old then, but he is a tremendously caring and compassionate person. Most people have the ability and capacity to change if they are given some kind of real opportunity. But there are people who are so antisocial -- and people who are mentally ill, too -- who have gotten so far into hating regular society that they are not going to reform. I also think that there are people with very complicated compulsions, particularly sex offenders, with whom it's very difficult to predict if they can reform.

Are the seeds of a criminal future planted in childhood?

The vast majority of women and a large percentage of men in our custody have been sexually abused as children. That warps your sense of relationships. It causes a deep-seated anger that comes out at various times. There's no question that if we could take the time clock and change it backwards, what we would be doing is giving every child good parents. Good parenting probably is the key factor to people not committing crime in the future. But once someone is an adult, you can't turn back the clock. Then we have to use other methods to counteract the damage that was done to them as children.

How do you reform a person?

My department runs drug treatment programs, ex-offender employment programs. We've found that people who go through those programs are far less likely to get re-arrested. But ex-offenders have a tough time getting employed. It's a circular problem. We would like to employ ex-offenders so they have a legitimate income so they don't steal or sell drugs to create their own income. On the other hand, people don't want to hire ex-offenders.

We've received a grant every year for more than 10 years from the California Arts Council for art programs in our jails. I believe that art helps people to express themselves. People use their fists or use other forms of violence because they are unable to express themselves. They use violence as a form of expression. So many people in jail have had very little education. The vast majority don't have a high school degree. They haven't had a lot of the opportunities that educated people have had. And they haven't had a lot of opportunities to experience success. It's pretty easy to experience success doing an art project. You paint, you sculpt, do a video project or write poetry and your product shows that you can accomplish something. That's the beginning of people understanding that they're worth something. So many people in prison and jails have been told from the time they were children that they're worth nothing. As a result, they give up on society and become outlaws. If we can convince them that they can become successful, that they can achieve, that they can communicate their concerns and their fears and their desires, then we're starting them on the road to becoming more like the rest of us.

As sheriff, you were mandated by the federal government to shut down marijuana clubs, even though California voters approved distribution of the drug for medicinal purposes. Was it difficult for you to enforce one law over another?

I supported Proposition 215, which provides for the medical use of marijuana. I think the war on drugs is a fiasco for our country. Nevertheless, I'm in a position where I have to follow court orders and enforce laws. In the case of the Cannabis Buyers Club here in San Francisco, the court order gave me the option not to let the state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement shut the club down. So I called up Dennis Peron, who was the director of the program, and I said, "Dennis, you've seen the order. I really don't want to do this." He said, "I'd much rather have your staff do it than have the state narcotics agents do it. I know you guys aren't going to come in and beat us up." I hadn't really thought about it that way. I still felt it was an unfortunate court order, something I didn't personally support, but I felt good that if it was going to be done it was going to be done in a non-harmful and cooperative way.

One of the most difficult parts of this job is doing evictions. The sheriff in the county is the only government official that can perform an eviction. Most evictions are very easy. You get there and people have moved already. Some evictions are very difficult. You're dealing with people who have mental illnesses, who don't speak English and didn't understand the legal process. You deal with people who have small children and just can't find a place to live. The marijuana eviction was similar to other evictions, in that you feel sympathy for the people involved but you're obliged to enforce the law.

What's the most rewarding aspect of your work?

Creating programs that go beyond what I necessarily am mandated to do by law. The fun part of being the sheriff is you get to set the policy, experiment. For example, we are one of the few systems that have acupuncture in the jails. Most people can think of a million reasons not to have acupuncture: There are needles, sharp objects and all that kind of stuff. But we thought of reasons why we should have acupuncture. We use it as part of the drug treatment program, because we found out that people in the free world were using acupuncture as a form of drug treatment. It helps reduce the craving for drugs. It gets people in a more relaxed, centered frame of mind.

The entertainment industry has been blamed for the recent outbursts of teen violence. Do you see a connection?

I do see a connection, but it's not widespread. There are certainly dummies who copycat what they've seen on TV, read in a newspaper or see in a movie. But the vast majority of people don't. Personally, I enjoy reading bloody murder mysteries. You know, "Silence of the Lambs" or "Red Dragon." But I'm not inclined to do any of those things. It's a fantasy world, a way to learn things, or intellectually purge your aggressions.

The bigger problem in our country is the widespread availability of guns. Admittedly, if there weren't guns there are still baseball bats and knives. Those weapons don't cause near the damage or have near the lethalness that guns do. I wish there were some way that our country would take a much stronger role in eliminating the types and the number of weapons that are out there. If that were to happen, the amount of violence in our country would drop dramatically.

What do you want to do when you're no longer sheriff?

I'd probably be happy to stay home, cook dinner, go shopping and stuff like that. I would prefer to stay in this job another eight years or so and then retire. I have a family. I have a spouse and two daughters -- a 12-year-old and an 8-year-old. I spend time doing seventh-grade math and attending school events. I enjoy reading murder mysteries, biographies and American history books. I like listening to loud, obnoxious music. I like the punk rock stuff and more alternative music. I enjoy baseball. I am a lawyer. I could practice law, I suppose, but frankly, being sheriff is much more fun than being a lawyer.

By Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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