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Trial likely in suit over San Francisco jail conditions

Pretrial inmates live in tiny cells and enjoy few hours of daylight at San Francisco's county jail, and conditions worsened during Covid-19.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A federal judge indicated Monday that a case against San Francisco by pretrial detainees complaining about jail conditions will likely go to trial.

City and county leaders are accused of detaining people awaiting trial in tiny cells, letting them out for only a few hours a day for exercise and often depriving them of any time outdoors. 

Pretrial detainees held at the now-closed San Francisco Hall of Justice or at a facility in nearby San Bruno sued the city and county of San Francisco in May 2019, claiming their lack of access to any kind of natural light violates their constitutional rights. Those conditions worsened during Covid-19, according to their attorney.

The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department has argued that security issues prevent allowing outdoor exercise at both jails, claiming it lacked the manpower at San Bruno to watch the inmates outdoors. In reality, the problem was self-created when the jails were built without access to direct sunlight. 

After winning a 2020 order from U.S. District Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim — that pretrial detainees incarcerated for more than four years must be given at least one hour a week of access to direct sunlight — the plaintiffs asked for summary judgment. They asked the court to find pretrial detainees have not been given enough outdoor time.

The defendants also want a summary judgment, arguing that jail conditions at San Bruno — which primarily houses inmates in educational or therapeutic programs, more than 50% classified as maximum security  — “exceed the constitutional requirements, which do not require outdoor exercise and permit meaningful indoor recreation opportunities.” 

The county pointed to Covid-19 prevention policies like reducing the jail population by 42% and suspending outdoor recreation until February 2021. They say now the general population gets one hour of recreation per day, and therefore the county is immune to plaintiffs’ demands for punitive damages.

Kim considered the motions from both sides at a hearing Monday. She has in the past expressed frustration that some inmates were locked up for more than 23 hours a day, and her preliminary injunction said those held in solitary confinement for their safety should receive one hour in the gym five days a week.

Deputy City Attorney Sabrina Berdux, representing the defendants, said Monday the preliminary injunction was given several extensions and expired April 30, 2020, as jail operations changed due to Covid. 

“Absent the pandemic emergency, the city has not contended that exercise in cells would constitute meaningful recreation,” she told the court. “However with the pandemic and some of the restrictions necessary we’ve learned … that in-cell, large muscle group exercises can be done.”

When Kim asked how the jail passes inspections regarding sufficient outdoor recreation, Berdux claimed there was a waiver granted but did not elaborate.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys Yolanda Huang and Richard Brody said that’s because the city and county don’t have a waiver. They cited Castro v. County of Los Angeles to support that insufficient recreation space harms pretrial detainees. In that case the Ninth Circuit found that Los Angeles, by not following building code as required by state law, harmed pretrial inmates and violated their 14th Amendment rights. 

Huang says the city and county are violating building code by not giving inmates access to recreation space outdoors or making that space sufficient for each person.

“The lack of sunlight injures the circadian rhythm," Huang said. But Kim rejected that, saying she thought indoor gymnasium space was adequate at San Bruno.

Huang also said the sheriff’s department hampered jail staffing, including by promoting higher-ranking officers, neglecting line deputies and pulling much-needed staff from jails. 

Kim noted that Huang’s case rests solely on claims under the 14th Amendment and the corollary in the California Constitution. She said she is unlikely to grant either side summary judgment because neither has adequately shown how much out-of-cell time was given to each incarcerated person during the pandemic. 

“I have a very vague explanation from both as to how much out of cell time there was,” Kim said. “I’m very confused about what’s happening right now. If this were to go to trial, what you would need is an actual chronology.”

Berdux said the judge should only consider the present jail conditions. Huang said the jail has not provided handwritten records from every housing unit throughout the pandemic to prove how much every person got time outside of their cell.

“The defendants knew there was the preliminary injunction but they chose deliberately not to make space available outdoors,” Huang said. “Everyone in that jail was locked down 23.5 hours per day.”

Huang said in an interview that many young clients are developing cardiovascular diseases from spending nearly all of every day inside a small cell. She said because people may be detained because they cannot post bail, that means these conditions are disproportionately affecting low-income people and people of color.

To counter, the city and county said in the motion for summary judgment that inmates at San Bruno are primarily ineligible for pretrial release because they have been charged with a serious felony or assessed as a high security risk.

“If San Francisco knows locking people indoors (too long) will give them dementia, heart disease and diabetes, why is it doing it?” Huang said. “People are really sick.”

Kim said she will issue an order soon. Both sides return to court on Feb. 27.

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