Judge: Pretrial Inmates in San Francisco Need Time in Sunlight

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.

A federal judge in California ruled Friday that longtime pretrial inmates must have access to sunlight.

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.”

In Pierce v. County of Orange, the Ninth Circuit found 90 minutes of exercise a week insufficient for pre-trial detainees incarcerated for an average of 110 days, but did not address the right to outdoor exercise, while in Shorter v. Baca, the same court held that jail officials are required by the Constitution to provide inmates with “outdoor recreation activities, or otherwise meaningful recreation.”

In Peterkin v. Jeffes, the Third Circuit laid out a four-factor test to determine whether an inmate’s deprivation of outdoor exercise violates the Eight Amendment: “1) the opportunity to be out of the cell, (2) the availability of recreation within the cell, (3) the size of the cell, and (4) the duration of confinement.” 

Under this test, Kim found general population inmates at the San Bruno facility can access “adequate amounts of exercise and fresh air but not at the same time.” During her site visit, Kim noted day rooms at the jail allow for some limited exercise, and that inmates can use the gym for 30 minutes every day. 

At the Hall of Justice, Kim found the situation quite different. Inmates can only use the gym 90 minutes a day, twice a week, and can spend 12 hours a day in the day room, which offers limited options for exercise. Still, she found that amount of time sufficient to barely pass constitutional muster.  

As for prisoners in solitary confinement for their own safety — euphemistically referred to by jail officials as “administrative segregation” — Kim found San Bruno inmates, though confined in cells for 23 hours a day, have barely enough out of cell time to meet constitutional standards. 

The Hall of Justice, however, confines its segregated inmates for 23 and half hours a day, with only three hours of gym access per week. For Kim, this is insufficient. 

“The issue in County Jail 4 for inmates in administrative segregation is not the denial of outdoor exercise but a denial of outdoor exercise without a meaningful alternative of out-of-cell time,” she wrote.

But even if the Eighth Amendment does not require outdoor exercise for longtime inmates, the 14th Amendment does, and while Kim declined to rule that an inmate has the right to access direct sunlight, she found that depriving pre-trial detainees of sunlight for more than four years constitutes punishment prohibited under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department had argued that security prevented it from providing detainees with outdoor exercise at both jails, claiming it lacked the manpower at San Bruno to watch the inmates outdoors. In reality, the problem was self-created when the jails were built without access to direct sunlight. 

But Kim found general safety concerns and lack of money are no excuse, writing: “The city and county of San Francisco created the problem and cannot justify denying outdoor exercise with this self-created situation.”

She added: “Thus, the court orders defendant the city and county of San Francisco to provide all pretrial detainees in the general population and administrative segregation who have been incarcerated for more than four years access to direct sunlight at least one hour a week, absent disciplinary issues such as placement in disciplinary lockdown or other emergency issues that prevent this access.”

Kim said she recognized that the injunction “draws an arbitrary line,” and that she based her ruling on the expertise of Jamie M. Zeitzer, an associate professor and health science specialist in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University who has published extensively on sleep and Circadian rhythms. Kim also toured the jails herself alongside Yolanda Huang, counsel for the detainees, who took light readings at various points inside each facility.

The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department said through a spokesperson that it is “evaluating the ruling and will decide on next steps shortly.”

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