April 5, 2012 — People housed at Suffolk County Correctional Facilities – whether or not they have been convicted of a crime – are forced to live amidst overflowing sewage, chronic overcrowding, rodent and insect infestations, pervasive mold and rust, and other deplorable and dehumanizing conditions, according to a federal class action lawsuit filed today by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the law firm of Shearman & Sterling LLP.
“Nobody should be forced to live in the sickening conditions that exist in the Suffolk County jails,” said Amol Sinha, director of the NYCLU’s Suffolk County Chapter. “Raw sewage bubbles from floor drains, rodents and roaches infest the kitchens, black mold covers the showers – it shocks the conscience. That county officials have allowed such horrendous conditions to persist for years is simply shameful.”
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York on behalf of those currently and previously detained at two Suffolk County Correctional Facilities: Riverhead, a maximum/medium security jail, and Yaphank, a minimum security jail. Suffolk County and its sheriff, Vincent DeMarco, are named as defendants along with other officials responsible for the jails.
“More than 100 detainees filed federal lawsuits against the county to try to remedy their own situation,” said Daniel Laguardia, a partner at Shearman & Sterling. “We have now consolidated their suits, and we are moving forward to protect the interests of all persons incarcerated in the Suffolk County jails in a single class action, reducing the burden on the court and providing dedicated legal representation to a historically neglected and illegally mistreated population.”
The lawsuit argues that the county’s longstanding indifference to the deplorable and notorious conditions at the jails violates people’s constitutional rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. The plaintiffs seek a court order requiring Suffolk County to improve conditions at the jails to meet constitutionally acceptable standards.
Jason Porter, a county resident, spent two months at Riverhead and encountered shockingly unsanitary conditions, including showers caked with mold, very cold temperatures and chronically malfunctioning toilets.
“One night, the toilets in just about every cell exploded,” Porter said. “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 ever be forced to live in a place like Riverhead.”
Every day, people housed at SCCF, the majority of whom have not been convicted of a crime, encounter a litany of appalling conditions, including:
- Sewage that regularly bubbles up from shower drains and toilets. Flawed plumbing at Riverhead causes human waste from one toilet to gush out of the toilet in an adjoining cell, a circumstance known as “Ping-Pong” toilets. Inmates often wake up with sewage overflowing from the toilets onto their cell floors. At Yaphank, raw sewage puddles from drains near inmates’ dining tables.
- Decrepit showers that are coated with unavoidable thick, black mold and reek of mildew. The faucets and pipes are rusted over. Corrections officers at Riverhead have reportedly told inmates that they would not even let their dogs use the showers.
- Air vents so caked with rust, mold and dirt that ventilation is affected and the air reeks of feces, urine and mold.
- Widespread vermin infestations. At Yaphank, inmates often see rodents in housing and food preparation areas. They describe that roaches, spiders and flies “are everywhere.”
- Unsanitary kitchens and dining areas that are covered with mold, rust and chipping paint. The men housed at Yaphank have reported being served food containing rodent droppings.
- Inmates are continually subjected to extremely cold temperatures due to high air conditioning in the summer and lack of heating in the winter. Inmates receive only one, very thin blanket.
- Brown drinking water that has made many men violently ill.
“The overcrowded and inhumane conditions at the jails are the product of decades of neglect and indifference by county officials,” NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Corey Stoughton said. “For too long, county officials have been content to make people live in conditions fit for a medieval dungeon, not a civilized society. It’s time for them to meet their moral and constitutional obligations to provide humane conditions at the jails.”
Inmates who have made formal complaints or filed lawsuits over jails conditions have been subjected to various forms of retaliation from corrections officers, including having their cells “tossed” or being denied privileges, such as access to the law library, use of phones or access to television. On at least one occasion, corrections officers denied heat to inmates until they agreed to abandon requests for grievance forms.
The jails are also chronically overcrowded. In 2007, the Sheriff’s Office called the overcrowding a “code red” situation. Yet, the county has done little to fix the situation despite repeated warnings from state government that it must do so. Suffolk County spent $9 million of taxpayer money to house prisoners in jails outside of the County from 2002 to 2006 and budgeted $1.5 million annually to continue doing so.
The NYCLU previously sued Suffolk County in 1974 over treatment of its prisoners. In March of this year, the NYCLU sued Nassau County over its persistent failure to provide inadequate medical and mental-health care at the Nassau County Correctional Center, where seven inmates have died since 2010.
Shearman & Sterling’s involvement in this case is part of its long-standing commitment to New York’s indigent and marginalized communities. The firm’s lawyers devote more than 50,000 hours to pro bono matters each year.