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San Francisco jail inmates must have daily sunlight, judge rules

A Sheriff's deputy near one of the cell blocks inside the San Francisco County Jail located at the Hall of Justice building, in San Francisco, Calif. on Thursday July 12, 2012. | Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
San Francisco County Jail inmates incarcerated for more than a year at the city's San Bruno jail must have access to sunlight every day. | Source: Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

San Francisco County Jail inmates, incarcerated for more than a year at the city's San Bruno jail, must have access to 15 minutes of direct sunlight every day after a judge ruled on a class action lawsuit Monday.

The ruling comes after inmates were given Vitamin D supplements to offset their limited exposure to sunlight. Court documents say that between March 2020 and August 2022, many inmates were on 23-hour lockdowns at the 768-bed facility, the city's largest. A large backlog in delayed cases can also mean inmates are locked down for months.

The class action suit, filed in 2019, alleged a lack of sunlight violated the Constitution's Eighth and 14th Amendments and caused health problems, including hypertension, cardiovascular disease and depression.

Inmates are housed in jail pods at the San Francisco's San Bruno jail. | Source: Courtesy Yolanda Huang U.S. District Court filings

READ MORE: SF Jail Inmates Get So Little Sunlight They’re Prescribed Vitamin D Supplements

In her Tuesday ruling, U.S. Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim noted the sunlight rule can be waived during an emergency or overcast weather.

Kim also cited in her ruling expert witnesses who said a lack of sunlight can disrupt people's circadian rhythm, leading to cognition issues, impaired immune function and increased risk of colon or breast cancer.

The inmates' attorney, Yolanda Huang, filed the suit to force officials to give inmates some time in the sun. The suit resulted in a 2019 federal court order requiring that San Francisco provide better conditions for jail inmates—but the pandemic thwarted its implementation.

Architectural drawings of the San Francisco County Jail in San Bruno show the layout of the pods where inmates are housed. | Source: Courtesy of Yolanda Huang U.S. District Court filings

In the complaint, Huang said inmates only get three hours per week out of their cell, meaning they are locked up 98.2% of the time.

"It isn't about making people feel good," Huang said."It's about constitutional rights being violated."

"While the plaintiffs received minimal injunctive relief, we are pleased the court found that the practices in San Francisco’s jails are by and large constitutional," spokesperson Tara Moriarty said in an emailed joint statement from the Sheriff's Department and the City Attorney's Office. "We are continuing to review the decision and will determine any appropriate next steps."

Garrett Leahy can be reached at