Judge Refuses to Impose Health Measures on Pest-Prone Jail Kitchen

A federal judge acknowledged pests are a problem in a county jail’s industrial kitchen, but she found the facility put adequate safeguards in place to protect inmates’ health.

Photo by (Jesstess87, CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons via Courthouse News)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Despite disturbing reports of pest invasions and contaminated food, a federal judge on Monday refused to impose stricter health and safety requirements on a county jail’s industrial kitchen.

Inmates at Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, California, reported finding cockroaches in sandwiches, rat feces on bread and razor shards in oatmeal, among other troubling testimony.

The jail and its contractor Aramak, which runs the kitchen, denied many of those claims. They cited health inspections that found zero pest problems and emphasized that the jail has used a pest control service for the kitchen five days a week since October 2019.

“The County offers evidence that it has taken numerous steps to ensure that the kitchen remains free of vermin and outside animals,” U.S. District Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley wrote in a ruling denying the request for a preliminary injunction.

Sgt. Raymond Kelly of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office welcomed the judge’s decision as a validation of hard work by the jail staff and kitchen employees to make sure food preparation and storage areas are safe and sanitary.

“A tremendous amount of work goes into maintaining that kitchen and making sure it’s clean,” Kelly said in a phone interview. “It was just validation that we are doing what we say we do — providing a healthy, clean and safe environment to make food and give it to people in custody.”

At a hearing last month, civil rights lawyer Yolanda Huang argued that an open entryway covered by vertically hanging sheets of plastic allows vermin to enter the kitchen. She said the lack of a solid door violates the state’s health code.

Judge Corley rejected that interpretation of the code in her ruling, finding it merely requires that a facility be constructed and operated in a way that prevents vermin and insects from entering.

“Given that the Jail kitchen passed inspection, and the record evidence, the Court cannot conclude that the Jail door violates state law,” Corley wrote.

Reached by phone Monday evening, Huang said she and her clients are disappointed with the decision. She argued passing a county health inspection reveals little about the true state of the kitchen because those inspections are pre-arranged and inspectors are escorted by jail staff at all times.

“The jail has plenty of time to set it up,” Huang said. “What commercial setup is inspected on that basis? Every other facility is inspected by surprise.”

Although Aramark employees denied removing bugs and rat feces from food and tolerating pests in the kitchen, Huang argued that not one employee denied that rats and mice roam the kitchen.

“No other large-scale food preparation center would be permitted to operate under those conditions, and why should the jail be given a pass,” Huang said.

Huang had requested an evidentiary hearing to cross-examine the jail’s witnesses, but Corley found it would be better to resolve such factual disputes at trial after all the evidence is gathered. The next stage of the lawsuit is discovery, in which both sides will seek documents and testimony from each other to support their arguments.

Corley also found the jail adequately rebutted claims that food trays are not properly cleaned. A sergeant testified that trays “go through a rigorous washing process” and are not served to inmates with old food crusted on top of them as some inmates had alleged.

Constructed in 2006, the Santa Rita Jail houses up to 4,000 inmates and hosts an industrial kitchen that prepares up to 16,000 meals per day for its inmates and other nearby detention centers.

Lead plaintiff Daniel Gonzalez sued the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office in November 2019 claiming a spate of constitutional violations, including that inmates are given unsafe food and inadequate medical care, kept in unsanitary conditions, offered insufficient outdoor recreation time, denied contact with lawyers and family, charged exorbitant fees for phone calls, and have been retaliated against for complaints of mistreatment.

In November 2020, Corley dismissed the bulk of claims with leave to amend, but she refused to dismiss claims regarding contaminated food, inadequate sanitation and one inmate’s claim of retaliation for filing a grievance.

This is not the first time Santa Rita Jail has been sued for allegedly subjecting inmates to inhumane or unconstitutional conditions.

In a separate class action filed by female inmates at Santa Rita Jail, a federal judge ordered the sheriff’s department in 2019 to stop depriving women inmates of their sleep by keeping lights on all night, making them take medication at 2:30 a.m. and 4 a.m., and running disruptive employee training drills in the pre-dawn hours.

In 2019, a woman settled another lawsuit against the jail claiming she was held in a cell with walls stained with feces and blood, denied menstrual pads or tampons and forced to bleed on her clothing and a concrete bench, where a “puddle” of blood formed. Another case is pending over a woman who gave birth in a Santa Rita Jail cell after allegedly being denied proper medical care.

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