Since January 2017, inmates at County Jail 4, located on the seventh floor of the San Francisco Hall of Justice, have dealt with filthy water overflowing from toilets up to three times a day. The sewage rises up to 1.5 inches off the floor, according to the lawsuit.
When these floods occur, jailers respond by turning off water, forcing plaintiffs to “hold their urine and bowels, causing extreme pain and discomfort for hours at a time,” according to the complaint.
In a phone interview, San Francisco Sheriff Vicki Hennessy acknowledged the 56-year-old jail has had plumbing problems for decades. She said she has been working to fix those problems and move inmates to a new facility.
“We’ve done everything within my power and our power to solve this problem,” Hennessy said.
In their lawsuit, three inmates who occupy the A-Block portion of the jail say the near-daily flooding started after a city contractor installed “trap” device to prevent sewage water from leaking into the District Attorney’s Office on the fourth floor of the building.
According to the sheriff, a lot of the sewage problems are caused by inmates storing things in toilets, “but that doesn’t excuse us from giving them a facility that meets their needs,” she said.
The inmates eat all of their meals in their jail cells, forcing them to endure “hazardous fumes and nauseating smells” while eating, according to their suit. The inmates say they see feces and toilet paper floating in the water. They have to use their own blankets and bedding to sop up the dirty water, and they are denied protective gear such as masks or hazmat suits. They say the sewage floods have also caused them to develop intestinal and breathing problems and constant headaches.
“No human being deserves to be exposed to those types of conditions whether they’re in jail or not,” the inmates’ attorney Stanley Goff Jr. said in a phone interview.
Goff said the inmates have filed hundreds of grievances for more than year, but the sheriff’s department has failed to act.
To address the problem, Hennessy said she has ordered two “muffin monsters,” garbage-disposal-like machines that grind up objects that should not be flushed down a toilet, to prevent blockages. Experts recommended the city install five muffin monsters there about 30 years ago, but the city only had enough money to buy three at that time, according to Hennessy.
Hennessy said she is also looking to rehab an old jail in San Bruno, a project that would cost at least $100 million, with the goal of permanently moving inmates out of County Jail 4.
In 2015, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors turned down a $240 million proposal, including an $80 million state grant, to build a new jail. At that time, current Mayor London Breed, then serving as board president, asked the city to look for ways to reduce the prison population instead of spending money on a new jail.
Although the city has reduced its prison population through work with nonprofits like the San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project, it still has to hold people for serious and violent crimes or repeat offenses, Hennessy said.
“As sheriff, I have no ability to determine who’s in my jail or out of my jail,” Hennessy said. “The courts are in control of that.”
With 402 beds, County Jail 4 is one of three active jails overseen by the sheriff’s department. On Monday, the jail had 369 inmates. The jail only houses male inmates, according to the department.
The city currently houses 1,404 inmates in three jails, but the number fluctuates daily.
Plaintiffs include Fabian Johnson, Matthew Rabbitt and Travis Rosette. Their attorney, Goff, said he wants the sheriff’s department to take immediate action to stop the flooding.
Goff said he will also seek monetary damages to compensate his clients for “suffering they have already been forced to endure.”
Hennessy said she expects two new muffin monsters, which should alleviate the flooding problems, to arrive in September. The two muffin monsters cost $250,000 including installation, according to the sheriff’s department.
San Francisco City Attorney’s Office spokesman John Cote said, “We will review the lawsuit once we’ve been served with it, and we’ll respond in court. The Sheriff’s Department always strives to maintain a safe and secure jail system.”