City Jail’s Toilets Are Exploding

Government employees flee the Hall of Justice over its plumbing problems, but inmates are stuck with the mess.

San Francisco Sheriff Vicki Hennessy is set to propose a plan to move inmates out of the Hall of Justice and put them elsewhere. Photo by Jessica Christian

For years, city departments have been trying to flee the crumbling, seismically unsound Hall of Justice. Walk into the 1958 building any day of the week and you’ll be sure to find “out of order” signs on everything from water fountains to toilet stalls. Rats scamper down hallways, and at one point, the District Attorney’s Office had to evacuate several offices due to sewage leaking through ceiling panels. A bitter battle is brewing over who should pay for the building’s demolition or repairs, and the bills are racking up. Last October, the Board of Supervisors approved new leases for the District Attorney’s Office, Adult Probation, and police investigations unit to move out of the Hall of Justice into new facilities.

But one population doesn’t have the privilege of relocating: inmates. This week, Bay Area civil rights lawyer Yolanda Huang filed a $150,000 suit against the city of San Francisco on behalf of seven inmates who she says have suffered physical injuries, emotional distress, and loss of personal property.

All plaintiffs in the case live on A-Block, which apparently suffers from frequent plumbing disasters. According to Huang, toilets back up regularly, sometimes with explosive force. When this happens, inmates are forced to mop up the mess with their bedding.

“Once the wet blankets are removed, the inmates who live in these cells are usually required to clean the floors. … Supplies provided to inmates are inadequate, do not disinfect, and are provided for limited time periods. … The floors and furniture inside these cells are never truly disinfected,” Huang said. “The foul smell and odors are pervasive. During this entire period, prisoners are forced to remain in their cells and forced to eat in their cells while there is sewage on the floors.”

The physical effects of this environment, Huang claims, have caused inmates to suffer from skin rashes, intestinal problems, and headaches.

“Inmates have slipped and fallen on the sewage and slippery floor, injuring themselves and then contracting skin rashes,” she says. “Being forced to live in this unsanitary, disgusting, nauseating, offensive, and outrageous situation is creating severe hardships for the prisoners. … Some have developed severe psychological stress, including extreme disrepair and suicidal ideation.”

This is not the first civil suit Huang has filed on behalf of people in jail. She’s representing six inmates from Santa Rita Jail in Dublin who claim that Alameda County sheriff’s deputies mistreated them while they were in custody — and, in some cases, coerced them into having abortions.

In the meantime, the Hall of Justice is emptying out. All 135 Adult Probation Department staff are scheduled to move into 945 Bryant St. in mid-2019, after the city approved a 20-year lease that will cost $33.9 million for the first 10 years. The Police Department’s Hall of Justice staff will be shifted down the block to 777 Brannan St., for a 10-year lease that totals $15.9 million. And the District Attorney’s Office will relocate to 350 Rhode Island St., which comes in at some $90 million over the next decade.

Once all those moves take place, 850 Bryant St. will become home just to exploding toilets, broken water fountains, courts, and the jail population, which as of this week, consists of 332 inmates.

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