SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – For years, the city and county of San Francisco has housed inmates awaiting trial in tiny cells, letting them out for only a few hours a day for exercise and often depriving them of any time outdoors, but conditions are set to improve for some after a federal judge ruled Friday that pretrial detainees incarcerated for more than four years must be given at least one hour a week of access to direct sunlight.
The order handed down by U.S. District Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim late Friday does not apply to inmates in disciplinary lockdown.
Kim also ordered that those held in solitary confinement for their own safety should receive one hour in the gym every day, five days a week.
Pretrial detainees held in County Jail #4 at the San Francisco Hall of Justice or County Jail #5 in San Bruno, California, sued the city and county in May 2019, claiming their lack of access to any kind of natural light violates their constitutional rights.
“In the entire time I have been in jail, I have never been given outdoor recreation,” inmate Montrail Brackens said in a declaration submitted to the court. "In the 6 ½ years I have been a pretrial detainee in San Francisco county jails, I have never had the sunshine on my skin. Every single prisoner suffers from complete denial of outdoor recreation.”
While Kim found the general population inmates who received sufficient time out of their cells and exercise in indirect light were not deprived, she seemed appalled that some inmates were locked up for more than 23 and a half hours a day – with only 180 minutes of exercise per week at the Hall of Justice and 210 minutes a week at San Bruno.
“The issue is not whether the inmates who are confined to their cells for 23 ½ hours a day are allowed to exercise outside but whether the amount of time they receive to exercise out of their cells and spend time out of their cells violates the Constitution,” she wrote. “That society would incarcerate a human being — who has not yet been found guilty and therefore is legally innocent and who has not committed a specific disciplinary violation — by locking him up in a small cell for 23 ½ hours a day is unacceptable.”
The lack of clear case law on the right to outdoor exercise posed a problem for Kim, who noted in her 58-page ruling that the U.S. Supreme Court has only mentioned in dicta that denying an inmate exercise could violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
But the Ninth Circuit held in Spain v. Procunier that inmates confined for disciplinary reasons should be allowed to exercise one hour a day, five days a week, and that “the cost or inconvenience of providing adequate facilities is not a defense to the imposition of a cruel and unusual punishment.”