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Hall of Justice relieved of most sewage spills, but problem dumped on jail floor

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San Francisco County Jail has problems with toilets backing up after they are used to dispose of things besides human waste.(Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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Nasty things usually flow downstream. But the latest backup in San Francisco County Jail’s toilets appears to be the case of a river running upstream.

Sewage backups spilling across the floors of 850 Bryant St. are not new. The courthouse and jail, which also houses the offices of the District Attorney and parts of the Police Department, has been plagued by sewage problems for years.

But the roughly 300 inmates, who live in the building’s seventh-story jail — the county’s highest security facility — are now living with the problem, too.

“It is extremely unpleasant when it backs up,” said Sheriff’s Department Chief of Staff Eileen Hirst of the 25 periodically overflowing toilets of the jail’s 118 toilets.

The problem began around March after plumbers had solved flooding on the lower floors by installing traps just below the toilets of the jail, said John Gavin with the Real Estate division, which manages the building.

Most other flooding in the building had been solved by installing huge grinders.

“Over the past decade, The City has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars, installing a dozen sewage grinders to mitigate flooding, and the investment has successfully lessened the frequency of large scale flooding,” Gavin said in a statement.

But there were some pipes that had too little access to installing grinders, Gavin said, so they put in traps that have caught everything from plastic forks and fruit to chip bags. That solution caused another problem — flooding in the jail.

“The more recent installation of the trapper hooks have prevented other floors from being impacted when items not intended to be disposed of in toilets (plastic bags, chip bags, fruit, forks, towels and articles of clothing) are constantly stuffed into the toilets,” Gavin said. “The issue is now localized at the source and the plumbers quickly respond to clear the hooks.”

In that time, the County Jail has had to call in city plumbers 61 times for emergency work during off hours. They have had overflows during normal work hours, but have not been tracking the number of such incidents.

Now, plumbers must clean out the traps twice a day.

“Instead of clogs happening inside the pipes [and toilets below] … they are flooding the jail toilets. Every day, we have [the] traps cleaned out,” she said, adding that all kinds of things are drawn out of the traps. “… what nature intended and maybe some foreign materials.”

The main impacts to inmates have been periodic moves to clean up the mess, Hirst said.

Still, since the March installation of the trapper hooks, Hirst said the problem has been reduced in much of the Hall of Justice.

Last week, the state’s jail regulators, who bi-annually inspect county jails, reviewed San Francisco’s facilities, she said. But they have yet to release their report.

Scanvinski Hymes, a longtime inmate facing a series of federal and state charges, said the problem is so bad they often have to eat lunch with the smell of sewage in the air as vacuums suck up the smelly mess.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of inmates at the County Jail. There are about 300 inmates.

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