Sheriff's appointment stirs controversy

Issue 

By Brandon Astor Jones

The citizens of the city and county of San Francisco can be very proud of their sheriff, Michael Hennessey, for his uncommon courage and leadership. Sheriff Hennessey has broken away from the bureaucratic, business-as-usual, nepotistic traditions that plague most US police and corrections agencies, in which innovative thinking is not encouraged, or even allowed.

He has appointed Michael Marcum, a civilian and individual thinker, to the post of assistant sheriff, the number three position in a department that oversees more than 2200 prisoners in jails and other custody programs. San Francisco is one of the few places in the US that the sheriff is an elected official who is also not a sworn peace officer. Alas, not everyone is happy about Marcum's recent appointment.

"It is simply inappropriate and morale-sapping to appoint someone to a position of authority who is not and cannot be a sworn police officer", said Nelson Williams, president of the Deputy Sheriffs Association at a protest rally outside the Hall of Justice. Williams and about 50 other deputies gathered there to protest against Marcum's appointment.

Williams' words may have been a tactful way of stating what many of his colleagues say openly: prisoners, in the eyes of most police and corrections officers, do not rise to the level of whole human beings. Several other deputies at the rally said it is "an insult" for them to have to take orders from an ex-convict. Assistant Sheriff Marcum is indeed an ex-convict.

Michael Marcum is 47 years of age, born and reared in Oakland, California. He and his mother were subjected to his father's violent wrath. "My father was abusive ... We had a series of arguments where I eventually shot and killed him", says Marcum. According to the San Francisco Weekly (November 3, 1993), "When Marcum was 18 years old, he was confronted by his abusive father, who handed his son a gun with a challenge to shoot him. For some reason, Marcum accepted the challenge, pleaded guilty in court and went to prison. He spent seven years in prison."

He was not the kind of prisoner that wardens hope for: he was an agitator and fought the oppressive system that confined him. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, he successfully attacked the law that denied prisoners the right to vote. He was also instrumental in the formation of the United Prisoners Union.

After his release in 1972 he became a volunteer working as a rehabilitation counsellor. "In 1980, he became Director of Prisoner Services. In 1983, Marcum implemented the Sheriff's Work Alternative Program (SWAP), which allows people sentenced for non-violent misdemeanors to serve their time through supervised community service. He has also been instrumental in shaping the Work Furlough Program, which allows qualified participants to continue working or attending school or performing childcare by day, returning to custody at night to complete their jail sentences.

"In 1989 [he] became the first civilian jail commander in [Sheriff's Department history when he was named director of County Jail #7 in San Bruno. Called the Program Facility, Jail #7 requires the prisoners to participate in a full range of educational, vocational and counseling programs designed to prepare them for their transition back to the community on completion of their sentences. Marcum currently serves as Executive Director of Pre-Release Facilities and Programs." (From a City and County of San Francisco news release.)

I have been in correspondence with Assistant Sheriff Marcum for some time some time now, and I am convinced that no finer example can be found to show how hard prisoners and ex-prisoners need to work, but equally need to be allowed to work, to redeem ourselves.

For much too long now, all over the world, people who have little or no idea of what life is like in prison dictate what life will be like for those of us who are incarcerated - to the detriment of society. It makes no difference whether you are free or confined, it is time we all realise that appointments like this one will bring new hope to us all, in or out of prison. We all win when prejudice is exchanged for forgiveness.

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