Attorneys representing current and former inmates in San Francisco County Jail recently amended a lawsuit against the jail, adding scores of defendants steamed over frequent raw sewage overflows inundating their cells.
The tally of inmate plaintiffs reached 136 as of the Feb. 27 filing but, says lawyer Fulvio Cajina, has actually swelled to more than 150.
“We’re getting more and more almost every day,” he notes.
“When the raw sewage floods occurred, the Plaintiffs were able to observe visible pieces of fecal matter and used toilet tissue in the water invading their living areas, soiling the Plaintiffs’ personal belongings and causing the Plaintiffs to experience physical injuries,” reads the suit.
Over the course of roughly a year, the suit alleges, sewage overflows became a near-daily ordeal for the inmates in County Jail No. 4, on the seventh floor of the Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant St. And, at times, they occurred up to three times a day.
“Additionally, when the raw sewage floods occurred,” deputies turned off the water for hours at a time, according to the complaint. “During these periods of no running water, the Plaintiffs were forced to hold their urine and bowels, causing extreme pain and discomfort for hours at a time.”
The suit stems from a much reported-on January 2017 incident, in which a sewage overflow at the jail trickled down several floors at the Hall of Justice and inundated the District Attorney’s office, triggering an evacuation. The suit alleges that a “trap” device was subsequently inserted into the plumbing at 850 Bryant to prevent the DA’s chambers from being soiled again — but, per the complaint, this device induced back-ups and flooding within the jail.
“The floods occurred in the middle of the day and at times in the middle of the night while the Plaintiffs were asleep, forced the inmates to wake up in the middle of the night to raw sewage, which they were forced to clean without proper safety equipment,” the suit alleges. “When the raw sewage floods occurred, on average, there was between a half-inch and an inch and a half of raw sewage which would flood the approximately 8’ by 20’ living spaces for the inmates.”
A mediation session is scheduled for March 26. This is a parallel suit to one filed in July of last year by attorney Yolanda Huang on behalf of seven inmates. But while that is a class-action suit, this one, originally filed in August, represents individual plaintiffs.
The defendants in this case include the city, Sheriff Vicki Hennessy, undersheriff Matthew Freeman, Chief Deputy Sheriff Paul Miyamoto, and several individual sheriff’s captains.
Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Nancy Crowley notes that Hennessy has long advocated for County Jail No. 4 to be replaced and has pushed diversionary and other programs to keep the number of inmates housed at this problematic jail to a minimum.
John Coté, a spokesman for the City Attorney’s office, said “The Sheriff’s Department always strives to maintain a safe and secure jail system. While old facilities present a unique set of challenges, the plumbing was fixed months ago.”
The attorneys for the inmates, however, point to a memo contained within a massive state Occupational Safety and Health Administration filing undertaken in the wake of the initial flooding incident. It reveals that, by November 2017, the city had identified a roughly $200,000 fix for the problem, but balked at sinking money into the crumbling Hall of Justice.
“It is not a cost effective way to solve the localized flooding issue for CJ#4 seeing that they are to be relocating in the next couple of years,” reads the memo.
So, Cajina says, the inmates were made to live in these conditions for another 10 months, until Sept. 11, 2018 — after the lawsuits had been filed. Cajina claims many of his clients were subsequently moved out of County Jail No. 4 at 850 Bryant to San Bruno, and some if not all of the fixes were, belatedly, made to the plumbing.
If he and his clients are successful, the damages could well dwarf $200,000.
“Knowing how to resolve it, they didn’t because it wasn’t ‘cost-effective,’” Cajina says. “This is the sort of case a city should settle. There is really no excuse for what they did.”