San Francisco’s alleged practice of not granting access to sunlight to inmates in jail is at the center of a lawsuit filed on behalf of incarcerated individuals against the Sheriff’s Office.

The lawsuit filed in May of 2019 went to court Tuesday and claims that denial of sunlight constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as plaintiffs allege it has been linked to the development of chronic illnesses.

The complaint asks for the jails to cease practices of confinement and isolation, implement procedures to permit more out-of-cell time for all prisoners, provide access to regular outdoor recreation and sunlight as well as medical treatment for all prisoners who may require it.

All incarcerated individuals named in the case are pretrial detainees who have been confined in two San Francisco County jails — some up to six and a half years, according to the complaint. During this period of time, they were “completely denied all access to sunshine, and completely denied any outdoor recreation,” reads the complaint.

San Francisco County Jail 4 at 850 Bryant St. in San Francisco is a maximum security facility located on the seventh floor of the Hall of Justice. Its rated capacity is 402 inmates. A lawsuit against the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office says inmates there rarely come in contact with natural light or fresh air, nor have access to outdoor recreation or direct sunlight. (Google image)

While the lawsuit alleges that all inmates at both jails are subjected to such treatment, it also recognizes a subgroup of inmates who are locked in cells for “excessive amounts of time,” reads the complaint. This includes inmates who are allowed out of their cells for up to 30 minutes per day, amounting to three and a half hours per week, according to the complaint. During this half hour, they share access to phones and an exercise room.

Thousands of inmates affected

The lawsuit concerns San Francisco County Jail 4, which is located on one floor of the Hall of Justice and San Francisco County Jail 5, which is on the outskirts of San Mateo County. Combined between the two jails, over 1,100 individuals daily and 30,000 annually have been subjected to this treatment, the complaint alleges.

The complaint notes that County Jail 5 replaced the old San Bruno Jail in 2006, which used to maintain a large outdoor yard and held programming activities for inmates such as gardening. When the new facility was built, according to the complaint, access to this outdoor space was cut off — though the yard is still there today.

At County Jail 4, a few inmates in one cell block come in contact with natural light and fresh air via a nearby window, but none are granted access to outdoor recreation or direct sunlight.

“We firmly believe that no one should suffer inhumane conditions, and the denial of sunlight to prisoners represents a severe violation of their basic human rights.”

Yolanda Huang, attorney for prisoners

Kenyon Norbert, an incarcerated man named in the case, has been in custody as a pretrial detainee since 2014 and has spent 1,788 days without feeling sunlight or being outdoors, according to the complaint. Norbert has gained almost 100 pounds, experiences anxiety and depression and believes himself to be deficient on vitamin D.

Out of the five other inmates named directly in the lawsuit, many report feeling vitamin D deficient which has led to impaired mental health, cognitive function, social interaction skills and muscle weakness — which the plaintiffs say all inmates in the two jails suffer from.

“We firmly believe that no one should suffer inhumane conditions, and the denial of sunlight to prisoners represents a severe violation of their basic human rights,” said lead attorney on the case Yolanda Huang. “Our clients and others similarly situated have endured prolonged confinement without access to natural light, leading to devastating health consequences.”

Deputy sheriffs support the lawsuit

The San Francisco Deputy Sheriff’s Association supports the incarcerated individuals bringing forth the lawsuit.

“Deputy sheriffs are the backbone of the sheriff’s department, and all of our members support and follow the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics which directs that we ‘respect the constitutional rights to all liberty, equality and justice,’” said president of the San Francisco Deputy Sheriff’s Association Ken Lomba. “This includes the rights of those in our charge and in our custody. We support the inmates’ request for outdoor access.”

The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office also supports the plaintiffs, according to a news release from Huang.

The San Francisco Sheriff’s Office was not immediately available for comment.

Lydia Sidhom is a rising third-year at UC Berkeley studying Data Science and Political Science. She is a Dow Jones News Fund intern for Bay City News. Lydia was a lead beat reporter, deputy news editor and projects developer for The Daily Californian and will be a deputy projects editor there this fall. She enjoys telling stories through data. In her free time, Lydia loves to read, bake and travel.