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Trial Likely in S.F. Pretrial Detainees' Suit Over Over Poor Jail Conditions

A case against San Francisco by pretrial detainees complaining about jail conditions will likely go to trial, a federal judge indicated Monday, according to Courthouse News. 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 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 2019, claiming their lack of access to any kind of natural light violates their constitutional rights. Those conditions the detainees faced worsened during COVID-19, their attorney says. 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 inmates outdoors. After a 2020 order by 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 sought a summary judgment finding 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 percent classified as maximum security — “exceed the constitutional requirements, which do not require outdoor exercise and permit meaningful indoor recreation opportunities.” The county cited COVID-19 prevention policies like reducing the jail population by 42 percent and suspending outdoor recreation until February 2021. They say the general population now gets one hour of recreation per day, sparing the county from punitive damages. The plaintiffs’ attorney, Yolanda Huang, said the city and county are violating building code, as required by state law, by not giving inmates access to recreation space outdoors or making that space sufficient for each person. Huang said many young clients are developing cardiovascular diseases from spending nearly all their time 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. The city and county said most San Bruno inmates are ineligible for pretrial release because they have been charged with a serious felony or assessed as a high-security risk.


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