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Criminal Justice

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

Written by Jonah Owen LambPublished Nov. 10, 2022 • 7:00am
Illustration by Lu Chen

English

Dexter Curringdon, a San Francisco jail inmate, has led a sunless existence for nearly two years while awaiting trial. And the 30-year-old’s health has declined because of it, with his liver taking a particularly harsh hit.

The jail physician’s remedy: vitamin D.

“I guess I wasn’t getting enough sunlight,” said Curringdon, who’s jailed on an attempted murder charge.

Curringdon is one of 138 SF inmates given vitamin D supplements, with another 64 taking multivitamins that include vitamin D. Though the city won’t say how many are given the supplements to make up for a lack of natural light, most of San Francisco’s 800-plus inmates do not get direct sunlight—save for when they are transported to and from court—because of pandemic health orders and staffing shortages that cut outdoor and recreation time.

The interior view of one of San Francisco County’s San Bruno jail pods where inmates are housed | Courtesy Yolanda Huang U.S. District Court filings

Delayed trials in a still Covid-stalled court system contribute to the problem, with inmates spending more time in jail, where many are on 23-hour lockdowns.

Sunlight deprivation causes a range of medical conditions, including dementia-like symptoms, heart problems and the worsening of diabetes, as well as changes in skin color and depression, according to court documents filed Tuesday in a federal class-action lawsuit. 

Three years ago, attorney Yolanda Huang filed the complaint with the aim of forcing officials to give inmates 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. The case is set to go to trial early next year. 

Now, new case filings, including declarations from former San Francisco County Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi and a number of doctors, say current conditions such as lockdowns and lack of sunlight violate inmate rights and constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Dr. Jamie Zeitzer said in a sworn statement filed this week that the lack of sunlight would harm inmates on a number of physical and psychological levels.

Expert witness, Dr. Jamie M. Zeitzer, tests light levels in a San Francisco County Jail cell. | Courtesy of Yolanda Huang U.S. District Court filings

“It was my opinion in June 2019, and it remains my opinion, that the reports of total lack of natural sunlight, limited nighttime sleep period and continuous nighttime illumination will be associated with a variety of both short- and long-term impairments,” Zeitzer said. 

City and county officials have taken somewhat contradictory stances on the issue. 

The Department of Public Health says inmates are given vitamin D to counteract the lack of sunlight, even though it won’t say specifically how many inmates are impacted due to medical privacy laws. Despite such claims, medical privacy laws do not bar the release of aggregate numbers, which The Standard requested but did not receive. 

Public health officials only said there are many reasons why vitamin D is prescribed. But the Sheriff’s Office insists that the inmates get enough sun and are given access to light and fresh air—in addition to supplements, according to their court filings in response to the class action lawsuit.

Every cell in County Jail 5 in San Bruno has a window and access to fresh air, according to the Sheriff’s Department. “For security reasons the window is striped with lines that provide a clear view of the landscape outside and tinted lines that obscure the landscape, yet still let in ambient light,” the city said in a court filing. The city went on to say that inmates also get sunlight and fresh air in the gym through two large grates on the wall.

Architectural drawings of the San Francisco jail in San Bruno, which shows the layout of the pods where inmates are housed | Courtesy Yolanda Huang/U.S. District Court filings

But Huang contends that the department’s description of light and air access skirts the truth. The vent cut through the wall of an enclosed miniature basketball court is the only fresh air for the vast majority of inmates, Huang said, and the diffuse light through frosted glass is their only daylight.

A number of doctors who made statements in the suit on behalf of the inmates echoed her opinion. 

Dr. Zeitzer, who measured light in and outside of the jail, noted that “there is no clear dawn dusk pattern in the light readings in the cells as there would be in almost any outdoor setting.”

At least one inmate, Montail Brackens, has been diagnosed with diabetes since the lawsuit was filed, and his attorney has said that is due to lack of sunlight. Brackens has been in county jail for a decade awaiting trial. 

For Joseph Reed, who’s been in jail for more than nine months for an alleged parole violation, the only air and sunlight he gets is when he goes to court. 

Sheriff’s deputies escort prisoners back to their cells after attending classes at the San Francisco County Jail in San Bruno on Sept. 27, 2012. | Paul Chinn/The SF Chronicle via Getty Images

“When we get off the bus, they line us up outside, and I try to get as much sun as I can,” the 54-year-old said. “I’ll soak up the sun.”

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Huang and the city agree the jails were not designed to operate outdoor programs. 

The Sheriff’s Office has also argued that there is no way to securely give inmates access to outside time. But sworn statements from the previous sheriff about the jail’s previous outdoor programs contradict that assertion. 

For example, Mirkarimi’s administration launched an outdoor gardening program in 2015, and there are a number of unused facilities that could be used to safely allow open-air activities. 

Even before then, San Francisco’s jail was known for operating a farm, launched in 1982 and known as the Garden Project, where inmates grew produce that was sold to local restaurants. But such programs have been halted at San Francisco’s largest jail in San Bruno.

The lack of yard time has taken a toll on Ridhwan Quaraish, 35, who began his stint in jail in 2016 when he was charged with attempted murder.

“It affects me a lot,” he said. “I want to see the sunlight. I would love to get some fresh air and just not be every day in the cell.”

Inmates tell The Standard that lockdown conditions and the lack of sunlight have only heightened tensions in jail. 

Mathew Johnson, an inmate in SF County Jail, has not been outside since his arrest in August 2022. | Courtesy Mathew Johnson

Mathew Johnson, who’s been jailed for three months on a residential burglary charge, said extended lockdowns with so little natural light have a lot of inmates “ready to pop.”

All of the inmates—those who are part of the lawsuit and those who are not—are now awaiting the outcome of the federal case, which could force the hand of the Sheriff’s Office by letting them spend time outside. 

English

Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at [email protected]


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