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Saturday, June 15, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

San Francisco inmates’ bid for sunlight stumbles with federal judge

Inmates argued the lack of access to sunshine and time outside their cells affected their health.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A federal judge on Wednesday denied a summary judgment request by San Francisco County jail inmates who complained of insufficient outdoor time — and quashed their bid for damages as well.

The inmates — seven men then housed in San Francisco County Jails 4 and 5 — sued in May 2019 over what they said were unconstitutional conditions, policies and procedures by the San Francisco County Sheriff’s Department. All of the inmates had been housed in the jails for more than six years and during all that time “were completely denied all access to sunshine, and completely denied any outdoor recreation," they claim.

They wanted a judge to declare the sheriff’s ongoing policies and practices violated their constitutional and statutory rights, and to order an end to “the harmful, excessive and unconstitutional use of confinement and isolation.” They also wanted the judge to order the sheriff's department to give inmates more time out of their cells, regular outdoor recreation time and medical treatment for those injured by the lack of outdoor time.

“Defendants subject plaintiff and the prisoner class to a substantial risk of serious harm and injury by depriving plaintiff and the prisoner class to an essential vitamin, Vitamin D,” the plaintiffs said in their original complaint. “Defendants further subject the prisoner sub-class to the harm caused by excessive confinement, inadequate physical exercise, social isolation and environmental deprivation through forcing members of the sub-class to suffer confinement of up to 23.5 hours a day in small, inadequate cells, including eating, sleeping and defecating in these cells.”

But in a 36-page ruling issued Wednesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim granted the county's motion to strike the inmates’ prayer for damages — including punitive damages — and denied the inmates' request for summary judgment, while partially granting the county's request.

“Even if plaintiffs were able to maintain a claim for punitive damages against defendant, defendant points out that plaintiffs fail to establish any facts to support punitive damages because plaintiffs point to no facts showing fraud, oppression, or malice, which are required for punitive damages," Kim wrote.

As for the inmates' summary judgment request, Kim found conflicting accounts of how much time the plaintiffs spend in and out of their cells — and changes to their confinement since they filed their lawsuit brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic — means their 14th Amendment claims can't be resolved without a trial.

"Based on the evidence supplied by plaintiffs and defendant, there remains questions of fact as to the constitutionality of time plaintiffs are allowed out of their cells and whether defendant’s restrictions satisfy rational basis review. The court cannot grant summary judgment to either side on this issue," Kim wrote.

The judge found the same regarding the inmates' claims they suffer medical harm from a lack of sunlight — which the county also blamed on Covid restrictions — and denied both parties' summary judgment motions on the issue.

She granted summary judgment in the county's favor on the inmates' California Constitution claim mirroring the Eighth Amendment, since none of the class representatives have been convicted and therefore cannot represent who have been and are awaiting transfer to state prison.

The sheriff's department did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

The inmates' attorney Yolanda Huang declined to comment on the ruling, saying she and her team were still going through it.

"It's not over until it’s over, and we are committed to challenging the unconstitutional and inhumane conditions in San Francisco jail," Huang said. "The conditions in San Francisco violate the U.N.'s Mandela's rules on solitary confinement and confinement of prisoners and San Francisco should be ashamed of incarcerating prisoners in conditions that causes prisoners to develop chronic illness like diabetes and hypertension.”

Categories / Civil Rights, Government

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