Judge Won’t Force San Francisco Sheriff to Let Inmates Out for Exercise

The magistrate judge ruled she cannot upset the delicate balance between inmates’ mental health and protecting them from Covid-19.

San Francisco Hall of Justice, which houses County Jail No. 4. The county’s Jail No. 3, located in nearby San Bruno, has been keeping pretrial detainees locked up to prevent the spread of Covid-19. (Courthouse News photo via Wikipedia)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A federal judge said Thursday that she would defer to the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department’s policy of keeping inmates locked up to prevent Covid-19 from spreading, and not order a local jail to let pretrial detainees out of their cells for fresh air and sunlight.

“Defendants have struck a balance between protecting inmates’ mental health and protecting them from contracting Covid-19. The court is not well-positioned to second guess the sheriff’s nuanced decision-making in that regard and declines to upset that delicate balance,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim ruled.

At a hearing last month, Kim said she was concerned about the mental and physical  health of inmates at County Jail 3 in San Bruno, suggesting that the sheriff’s policy of confining them to their cells for 24 to 50 hours at a time was more harmful to their physical and mental well-being than the virus. 

Attorney Yolanda Huang agreed, telling Kim that the inmates were being treated like cargo.

Kim toured the jail in August 2019, eventually issuing an order that pretrial detainees incarcerated for more than four years must be given at least one hour a week of access to direct sunlight. The Ninth Circuit took up the appeal of that order this month.

On Thursday, Kim said the situation had changed substantially due to the pandemic, and that she wasn’t prepared to override the sheriff’s department’s outbreak mitigation strategy. The department has argued that the risk of spreading Covid-19 is too great. Prisoners can still exercise in their cells, though Kim had observed during her site visit “the cells are too small to allow inmates to exercise in a meaningful way.”

“Given the changed circumstances imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, construction of such an injunction seems impossible,” Kim wrote. “The circumstances in County Jail 3 have altered so significantly since the court’s initial site visit and injunction that another injunction would necessarily reflect those changed circumstances and thus could not preserve the posture of the first injunction, which is currently on appeal.”

Sheriff Paul Miyamoto has touted the low infection rates in the county jails. While San Bruno had 112 recorded cases of Covid-19 through Jan. 31, 2021, San Quentin State Prison had 2,241 confirmed cases and 28 deaths.

Sheriff spokeswoman Nancy Crowley emphasized this point in an emailed statement. 

“There have been no Covid-19 related deaths, hospitalizations or outbreaks in county jail since the pandemic began over a year ago,” she said. “Jail Health Services, a section of the Department of Public Health, is offering vaccinations to people in custody under the city’s expanded eligibility guidelines and has vaccinated 428 people to date. The San Francisco Sheriff’s Office seeks to resume normal jail operations as soon as it is safe to do so, providing justice-involved individuals access to recreational areas outside of housing and common use areas.”

But Huang said the sheriff has not considered any alternatives “to alleviate the suffering he has imposed” and that inmates at the San Bruno jail have remained locked in their cells for a year, and are only allowed out to use the phones and shower.

“Judge Kim’s decision is very disappointing,” Huang said in an email. “It reflects the general failure of our system which parrots jails that basically warehouse human beings with total disregard for the fact that they are sentient beings. The suffering in San Francisco County jails this past year has been horrendous.”

She added: “And the fact that Sheriff Miyamoto crows about how proud he is of his actions, and the fact that San Francisco permits the daily purposely inflicted, unnecessary suffering on the prisoners its incarcerates, underscores why our carceral system is an expensive and unholy failure.”

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