Thirty-three California prison inmates have filed separate-yet-identical lawsuits against Riverside County claiming that longstanding plumbing issues in the Riverside and Murrieta jails cause toilets to routinely overflow, creating cruel and unsanitary conditions for hundreds of prisoners.
County attorneys have begun settling some of the toilet lawsuits, and if the payout trend continues, settlements could drain more than $330,000 out of government coffers. Experts say fixing an actual plumbing problem would likely cost even more.
So far, every lawsuit makes the same claim: If an inmate flushes in one cell, the toilets in the neighboring cells will overflow, spilling sewage onto the floor. Jail staff won't provide any cleaning supplies to sanitize the cell, so the inmates can either live in sewage, or use their own bar soap, shampoo and towel to clean the floor. Jail cells became a "toxic, fetid pool of human waste," the lawsuits state.
"It was pretty much like being locked in a toilet bowl,” said Josh Snyder, 41, a convicted robber who filed a lawsuit last year. “It was like living in a Porta-Potty that you were never allowed to leave.”
The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the county jails, would not comment on the lawsuit spree. Geoff Raya, chief deputy overseeing corrections, insisted there is no pervasive plumbing problem in the jails.
“Not just the toilets, but everything from drinking fountains to showers are working as designed,” Raya said. “And if there are problems, and they are reported, then repairs are done immediately.”
To those who study jails, the plumbing problem described in the inmate lawsuits is commonly known as “ping pong toilets” because of the way that sewage bounces back and forth between cells, said Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center, a prisoner advocacy group.
Friedmann said jails present a unique plumbing challenge because hundreds of toilets are clumped together, but unlike hotels, the guests never leave and the facility is almost always full. Prisoners are also known to flush lots of weird stuff – like jumpsuits, bed sheets and contraband.
“All that being said, none of this is an excuse,” Friedmann said. “If you had overflowing sewage in public schools or the Legislature or the mayor’s office, they would get right on it. There would be no waiting for years, or constant complaints or lawsuits being filed. It’s only within the context of a jail where public officials say ‘Oh well. It’s just inmates, so who cares?' ”
If the inmates' allegations are true, the jailhouse toilet problem will likely be difficult – and possibly very expensive – to solve, according to multiple interviews with contractors and engineers with experience in large-scale plumbing. In every interview, sources said inmates often wreak havoc on plumbing systems, and the toilet splatter in Riverside jails is likely caused by widespread blockages in either the facility drain pipes or vent pipes.
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Fixing either would likely cost more than settling the nearly three dozen lawsuits that have been filed to date.
Bodnar, 53, said that every time the toilet in a neighboring cell was flushed, the toilet in his cell would gurgle and splash. Often, coin-sized bits of sewage water would splatter onto the jail cell floor. Bodnar said he alerted jail staff to the plumbing problem multiple times, but they always ignored or deflected his complaints. When he asked to file a grievance form, he was told the toilets weren't a "grievable issue."
“He says, ‘If you don’t like it, don’t come to jail,” Bodnar said, describing one of his attempts to complain to jail staff in a deposition transcript.
The sheriff’s department fought Bodnar’s claim in court, insisting there was no pervasive plumbing problem in its jails. However, once a judge ruled that Bodnar’s “cruel and unusual punishment” claim had potential – and should proceed toward trial – the department quickly settled the case.
Bodnar got paid, but the agreement didn't mandate any actual improvements at the jails.
The Bodnar settlement was intended to bring the toilet lawsuit to an end, but instead it inspired dozens of copycats. Almost all of the toilet lawsuits filed since have come from inmates in Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, where Bodnar is housed today.
READ MORE: Check out the settlement that started the lawsuit spree
In phone interviews, some of these inmates said that Bodnar’s settlement proved the toilet lawsuits could prevail. This news spread quickly among the prison population, and a few savvy inmates began helping others with the legal paperwork. Now, if anyone new comes to the prison from Riverside jails, they are approached about filing another lawsuit.
Three new toilet lawsuits were filed in 2014. Twelve were filed in 2015. Seventeen have been filed so far this year. Five of these lawsuits have been dismissed due to technical errors, but 28 remain open. More are expected.
READ MORE: Want to see these jail toilet lawsuits for yourself? Here is one.
Inmates have represented themselves when filing each of the lawsuits, but about a third of the cases have been picked up by a San Diego law firm through a federal court pro-bono program. Attorney Daniel Grunfeld declined to comment for this story because he is in settlement negotiations with the county.
The lawsuits are limited by statute of limitations, but Riverside’s jailhouse toilet problems date back much further than any of the suits let on, said Giovanni Gladden, 50, a repeat offender who has been in and out of the county jails since the mid-80s.
Gladden was one of the first inmates moved into Riverside jail – officially named the Robert Presley Detention Center – when it opened in 1989. Toilet overflows began in the first year, he said. Gladden sued the jails in July, demanding $25,000.
“We are talking about literally a bunch of crap all over the floor,” Gladden said. “I know I committed a crime and my punishment is having my liberty taken away from me. But I should still be treated humanely.”
None of the members of Riverside County's Board of Supervisors responded to a request for comment for this story. Messages were left with the office of every supervisor on Tuesday morning, but only the staff of John Benoit responded, saying he would not comment on the issue because the county was being sued.
Reporter Brett Kelman can be reached by phone at (760) 778-4642, by email at email@example.com, or on Twitter @TDSbrettkelman.