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Habeas Petition Granted Over Failing Roof, Unsanitary Conditions at California Prison

by Matt Clarke

On April 5, 2019, Robert Escareno, incarcerated at the California Substance Abuse Treatment and State Prison at Cocoran (SATF), submitted closing arguments in a Superior Court habeas action that alleged the failing roof over the Facility A dining hall allowed the intrusion of water, birds, bird and bat droppings, maggots, mildew and mold, even onto the dining tables while they were in use and on meal trays that were about to be used. 

Escareno was represented by attorneys Sara Norman and Camille Woods with the Prison Law Office in Berkeley. The written closing arguments detailed how, after three days of testimony from expert witnesses, prison officials and prisoners, there was no doubt that the damaged roof at SATF represented a serious health hazard to both staff and prisoners. 

Escareno’s attorneys noted it was undisputed that the dining hall’s roof membrane was compromised with large holes. That allowed water intrusion, causing many of the ceiling tiles to disintegrate and some to fall into the dining area. 

Prisoners testified that mice and maggots had fallen onto tables during meals. Prison officials claimed the prisoners had caused the maggot infestation by stashing food and homemade wine ingredients in the ceiling and ventilation spaces, but expert witnesses said the abundant bird feces present in those areas could have caused the infestation. 

Expert testimony and photographs showed large quantities of bird droppings and bird body parts had accumulated on the roof near the gaps in the roof membrane. That allowed rainwater to carry the droppings and body parts, along with building materials, into the dining hall. The prison officials’ own expert witness identified mold as a potential health hazard caused by the compromised roof at SATF. Their medical expert testified that mice droppings were a potential health hazard, too. 

Escareno said he had been diagnosed with mold spore allergies but did not experience symptoms anywhere except the dining hall. Another SATF prisoner, Marvin Dominquez, said mice fell from the ceiling onto tables in April 2018. A guard told him to sit at another table, he testified.

In requesting funding to repair the roof, California prison officials noted that water from the compromised ceiling had leaked into lighting fixtures, electrical conduit and electrical switch boxes, creating a safety hazard and causing electrical and communications systems to fail. The problems with the roof had been known for years. 

SATF Lt. Michael Owns testified that leaks had destroyed the ceiling tiles in the dining hall to such an extent that they were no longer replaced. He said he regularly ordered prisoners to scrub the dining hall walls with bleach. He also had prisoners place buckets to catch rain water and mop the wet floors. An expert who testified for Escareno said neither those actions nor any amount of bleaching could prevent the contamination or health risks in the dining hall.

California has earmarked $260 million over four years to replace roofs at more than two dozen prisons. Eight roofs have already been repaired, but the prison system’s current budget includes funds to replace roofs at just two additional facilities. 

“Roofs are failing all over the place,” said Don Specter, director of the Prison Law Office. “They acknowledge the need of the roofs, [but] they’re not making arrangements so people don’t get hurt in the meantime.”

State officials said the total estimated cost of overdue maintenance in the prison system was more than $1 billion. Of course, had they addressed the problems sooner rather than letting them persist and grow worse, it would not be as expensive to fix them. 

The Superior Court granted Escareno’s habeas petition in an 11-page ruling on June 4, 2019. Judge Donna Tarter wrote, “It is a shame that the State of California and the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation have allowed the Facility A Dining Hall to fall into such a state of disrepair. The evidence paints a picture of a correctional dining facility long neglected of basic building maintenance that is nearly irreconcilable with its location in a nation and state of such financial abundance and advanced legal standards for the habitability of real property and cleanliness of food service establishments.” 

Although the court found that water damage to the electrical and ventilation systems at SATF due to the dining hall roof problems did not pose “a substantial risk to inmate health and safety,” it held that prison officials’ efforts to clean the dining hall were insufficient to address health hazards created by “the intrusion of water contaminated with fecal matter, the presence of moldy and saturated ceiling tiles, and the entry of mice and maggots through areas of ceiling unprotected by tiles.”

Accordingly, prison officials were ordered to “cease use of the Facility A Dining Hall within two weeks of the date of” the court’s ruling, and to feed prisoners at another location at SATF until the dining hall’s roof was repaired. See: In re Escareno, Superior Court for Kings County (CA), Case No. 17W0140A. 

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Related legal case

In re Escareno