Judge: Suffolk suit over jail conditions can proceed

An inmate in Suffolk County Jail.

An inmate in Suffolk County Jail. (Credit: Michael E. Ach)

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A federal judge has rejected Suffolk County's motion to dismiss a lawsuit claiming deplorable conditions in its jails, clearing the way for the litigation to proceed.

U.S. District Court Judge Joanna Seybert in Central Islip gave a green light to a lawsuit being handled by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of 163 inmates who were either being detained before or after trial or serving sentences at the jails in Riverhead and Yaphank.

The 53-page decision released Tuesday also establishes the litigation as a class-action lawsuit with two classes: one seeking damages and the other seeking to improve the conditions at the two jails.

"It's a good decision," said Amol Sinha, director of the Suffolk chapter of the NYCLU. "It certifies our class and says a lot of people suffered harm in the jail and it's about time they had their day in court."

Jail officials declined to comment.

The inmates claimed they were forced to sleep amid the stench of sewage spouting up from toilets in their cells, and that they are routinely exposed to crawling vermin. Brown, foul-smelling water spilled from rusty faucets and the showers, they said, were infested with "black mold, soap scum and fungus."

The lawsuit was first filed on behalf of 20 plaintiffs in May 2011, but by April 2012, the complaint was amended to represent the interests of 163 people. They claim the conditions violated their constitutional rights to equal protection and from cruel and unusual punishment.

County and jail officials had argued in a response that the lawsuit should not go forward on several grounds, ranging from the notion that the inmates had not exhausted their administrative remedies to contentions they hadn't suffered an injury. The officials also reasoned that the plaintiffs, some of whom have been released, lack standing and further that the attorneys on the case were not qualified to handle it.

In the decision, Seybert said, "these conditions clearly constitute physical injury" and called some of the grounds officials cited to dismiss the case downright "frivolous."

She said the court "strongly and fervently" disagreed with the claim that the NYCLU attorneys, Corey Stoughton and Taylor Pendergrass, and attorneys from the Manhattan firm they are working with, Shearman & Sterling, were not qualified.

Seybert allowed the claims for liability against Suffolk Sheriff Vincent F. DeMarco and Undersheriffs Joseph T. Caracappa and John P. Meyerricks to be dismissed.

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