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Ninth Circuit asked to fix pest problems at San Francisco Bay Area jail

A U.S. circuit judge questioned if Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County fully adheres to written policies for ensuring meals are provided to inmates in a safe and sanitary manner.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Citing reports of contaminated food and pest infestations, a civil rights lawyer asked a Ninth Circuit panel Wednesday to impose stricter health and safety measures at one of the nation's largest jails.

“Prisoners are entitled to have food that is not contaminated by vermin and feces,” civil rights attorney Yolanda Huang told a three-judge Ninth Circuit panel.

Huang represents a proposed class of 115,000 current and former inmates at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, California. The jail, built in 2006 and managed by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, houses up to 4,000 inmates and hosts an industrial kitchen that prepares up to 16,000 meals a day for its own facility and other nearby detention centers.

Inmates reported finding cockroaches in sandwiches, rat feces on bread and razor shards in oatmeal — all claims disputed by the jail and its private contractor Aramark, who say they investigated the complaints and found them not credible. The jail also says its kitchen passed health inspections with flying colors.

Last year, a federal judge denied a request for an injunction against the jail, finding that although pests were a problem, the facility put adequate safeguards in place, such as hiring a pest control service five days a week.

On Wednesday, Huang asked the Ninth Circuit to overturn that decision. She argued that no pest control service can make up for an open entryway with hanging sheets of plastic that allows vermin to easily enter the kitchen. She said the lack of a solid door violates the state’s health code.

In a March 2021 ruling, U.S. Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley rejected Huang’s interpretation of the health code, finding that it merely requires a facility be built and operated in a way that prevents vermin and insects from entering.

When asked if there was any indication that the “flappy plastic door” failed a health inspection, Huang said the inspection did not address the issue.

“I think the answer is you don’t have an indication that it failed the inspection, right?” Circuit Judge Morgan Christen asked.

Christen also challenged the sheriff’s office’s position that the kitchen doors must remain open so robots can enter, pick up stacks of food trays and deliver them to different parts of the jail.

“It’s being done on an automated basis as a cost-saving mechanism,” Christen said. “So when you’re saying the robots have to do it this way, the alternative would be to hire and pay a human being to open and close the doors.”

Representing the sheriff’s office, attorney Jonathan Belaga said no law requires the kitchen to have a permanent door.

The jail has received more than 25 complaints from prisoners who say their meals were missing food portions, such as peanut butter and carrots, which are supposed to come in specific allotments of 14 ounces and three ounces, respectively. One inmate lost 70 pounds between January and August of 2020, according to the plaintiffs’ opening brief.

Huang said inmates have also reported “widespread hunger” and receiving food that is mostly inedible.

“Prisoners should not be required to endure the pain of hunger,” Huang said.

In an answering brief, the sheriff’s office argued that no evidence ties reports of weight loss and hunger to any problems with the jail’s food.

“These witnesses may detail a loss of weight; however, there is no evidence presented that such weight loss was harmful or unhealthy,” the answering brief stated.

On the issue of whether kitchen staff adequately clean food trays, Huang said Judge Corley improperly relied on employees’ written statements instead of holding an evidentiary hearing to suss out the facts.

Christen suggested some additional fact-finding may have been needed to determine if the jail and its contractor were adhering to policies described in written testimony.

“I really question whether the existence of policies would be sufficient if the policies weren’t being complied with,” Christen said.

Trying to point out that only a handful of grievances were filed over unclean food trays, Aramark attorney Salayha Ghoury reminded the panel that the jail produces thousands of meals daily 365 days a year, but her point was not well received by Judge Christen.

“The fact that it’s a very large-scale operation concerns me more, not less,” Christen said. “It’s lots of people who are going to be affected by this.”

Christen asked if she should be concerned that the request for an injunction was denied based on the existence of policies — policies that may or may not have been followed by jail staff and contractors.

“No, your honor. We don’t think you should,” Ghoury replied. “Because the evidence submitted by the plaintiffs was refuted and was shown that those policies were being implemented.”

Lawyers for the jail and Aramark added the facility uses disposable trays now, but Judge Christen said the panel would not consider that evidence because it was not in the record before the court.

U.S. Circuit Judges Daniel Bress, a Donald Trump appointee, and U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman, an Obama appointee sitting on the panel by designation from the Northern District of Illinois, joined Christen on the panel.

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