Oakland— Less than a month before state-wide hunger strikes are set to resume, The California Department of Corrections has instituted a new policy at Pelican Bay State Prison which has resulted in chronic sleep deprivation for prisoners in solitary confinement.
Both guards and prisoners complained to lawyers conducting legal visits last week about a new policy requiring prison guards to conduct “welfare checks” every thirty minutes on prisoners isolated in the prison’s Security Housing Units (SHU). Normally, prisoners in the SHU are counted every three to four hours by guards who patrol each unit, ensuring prisoners are in their cells. Each prisoner must be observed physically moving or showing skin. The frequency and method of these counts have already been challenged in a Federal lawsuit, Ashker v. Brown. Experts claim the sleep deprivation caused by the counts violate prisoners’ 8th Amendment rights.
“Sleep deprivation has many significant psychological consequences including irritability and impairment of the ability to make rational decisions,” says Dr. Terry Kupers, a clinical psychiatrist and an expert on forensic mental health. “Because of the harm it causes, sleep deprivation has been described as torture by organizations such as Amnesty International.”
The new policy has been ordered by Jeffrey Beard, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) newly appointed secretary whose Senate Confirmation Hearing is scheduled for June 19, 2013. The directive applies to over 1,100 prisoners who are in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay.
“Tensions were very high at Pelican Bay last week,” says Anne Weills, an attorney who is representing SHU prisoners at Pelican Bay. “The guards are on edge and upset about this new policy. Obviously the prisoners are on edge and suffering because of the sleep deprivation. But they remain resilient and deeply committed to peaceful actions to make necessary changes.”
In January, prisoners at Pelican Bay announced in an open letter to Governor Brown that they would resume hunger strikes and include work actions to protest the conditions of their confinement. In 2011 over 12,000 prisoners in over a third of California’s 33 prisons participated in two waves of hunger strikes. The 2011 strike was called off when the CDCR promised new policies and other improvements that addressed five demands outlined by prisoners. Almost two years later, prisoners and advocates claim the CDCR’s promises have been empty, and prison conditions have worsened.
“This is torture,” says Azadeh Zohrabi of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition. “This intensified sleep deprivation adds to the long list of human rights violations endured by thousands of prisoners held in solitary for prolonged and indefinite terms, some for decades.”
Lawyers and advocates have also received demands from prisoners who plan to go on strike in San Quentin, High Desert, and Corcoran State Prisons. Prisoners have been clear that the strike could be called off if Governor Brown engaged in good-faith negotiations. Brown’s office has not responded to their request.