In April 2012, over 100 former and current inmates at the Riverhead and Yaphank jail facilities in Suffolk County, Long Island filed a lawsuit claiming that the conditions of the facilities were inhumane and deplorable. The lawsuit states that the alleged conditions at the jails violate the inmates’ constitutional rights because the jails’ conditions amount to cruel and unusual punishment. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. In March 2014, Judge Joanna Seybert, in a 53-page ruling, dismissed a motion filed by Suffolk County requesting that the class-action lawsuit be tossed out. The judge stated that the suit can move forward and that anyone who was detained at the jails since April 2009 can seek damages. Moreover, the judge ruled that current inmates can seek a court order to force Suffolk County to improve the conditions at the two facilities.
According to the 2012 lawsuit, former and current inmates claim that the living environment in the jails is not fit for human beings. For instance, the plaintiffs argue that sewage constantly bubbles up from drains and toilets. Due to faulty plumbing at the Riverhead jail, human waste flushed down one toilet often comes up in the toilet in an adjacent cell. Sewage is often found on cell floors. In addition, the lawsuit claims that the showers are lined with thick mold and mildew. The pipes and faucets in the facilities are covered with rust. One corrections officer allegedly told an inmate that he wouldn’t even allow his dog to use the showers at Riverhead. Moreover, inmates claim that the air vents are clogged with mud, dirt, and rust; the air often reeks of urine and feces. The plaintiffs also allege that the facilities are infested with vermin and insects, including in food preparation areas. One inmate stated that he was served food that contained rodent droppings.
In addition, the facilities are often extremely cold; during the summer, the air conditioning is constantly running, and there is little to no heat during the winter. Inmates are only issued one, thin blanket. The lawsuit also contends that the inmates must drink brown water, making many people violently ill. Finally, the plaintiffs allege that the facilities are chronically overcrowded, leading to unsafe conditions.
Jason Porter, a former inmate at the Riverhead jail, is a class member in the suit. He stated, “One night, the toilets in just about every cell exploded. The place was flooded with raw sewage. We retreated to the table area, where we sought refuge for 30 hours. I couldn’t explain the smell in a million years. Nobody should be forced to live in a place like Riverhead.”
In the past, inmates who have made formal complaints or filed lawsuits about the jails’ conditions often faced harassment from corrections officers. In some cases, inmates had their cells “tossed”, and were denied privileges and heat.
In March 2014, Judge Seybert wrote that the court, if it does rule in favor of the plaintiffs, would be able to order that the conditions at the facilities be improved. For instance, the court could “order that plumbing systems be repaired/replaced and that inmates be provided with proper cleaning supplies, and/or set minimum standards of cleanliness that must be maintained.”
More on this story can be found via the NY Civil Liberties Union.