Open Letter from the American Public Health Association Opposing the 30-minute checks

Nov 2, 2015 – As the Jail and Prison Health Committee of the American Public Health Association, we have become aware of an issue of sleep deprivation at the California Pelican Bay State Prison Secure Housing Unit (SHU). We feel compelled to weigh in. Our understanding of the situation is as follows:

On August 3, 2015 the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation set up around-the-clock suicide prevention checks to take place every 30 minutes for all prisoners in California isolation cells across the state prison system. Prior to this change, there were three checks a night at Pelican Bay within a 7 ½ hour period (approximately 10 p.m., 1:30 a.m. and 5:30 a.m.) Now there are 16 checks. Because of the unique architecture of Pelican Bay’s SHU, the new practice has produced damaging health consequences for the prisoners. The checks result in a loud, disruptive, near constant, checking process 24 hours a day. The sounds include banging locks and chains, screeching heavy doors opening and slamming shut, keys jangling, and guards tramping up and down metal stairs.

As expected, there has been an outcry from prisoners who report major sleep disruption. In a recent survey of 13 prisoners, all but one reported low energy, exhaustion and fatigue. They described irritability, crankiness, moodiness, being “on edge,” feeling depressed, experiencing heavy anxiety and agitation, being less social, feeling frustrated and annoyed, being “quick to anger,” and “stressed. “ One man, who at age 31 has spent six years in segregated housing, said, “This is the worst I have ever felt since being in SHU.” (Report prepared by Atty. Carol Strickman, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Oct. 22, 2015)

The SHU suicide prevention policy requires correctional officers to spend substantial day and night hours walking and checking the units they are responsible for. Consequently, in addition to the disruptions at night, there are reports of reductions of yard time and showers; slower mail and laundry; and curtailment of educational opportunities.

While we understand and strongly support the intention to protect prisoners from suicide, we express our concerns:

  • We are alarmed that these disruptions have been allowed to continue for 3 months despite multiple complaints from prisoners and even though there are clearly many negative effects from this practice.
  • Repeated intrusions, especially to nightly sleep, lead to a variety of negative physical, cognitive and emotional consequences, adding to the already well-documented harms of solitary confinement. (APHA Policy 201310: Solitary Confinement as a Public Health Issue.)
  • To the extent that these new frequent checks have curtailed already extremely limited out-of-cell time, the impact of these checks is further damaging to the mental health of persons who are already denied both direct human contact and exposure to nature.

We recommend that:

  • The 30-minute checks should cease or be suspended until they can be done quietly or are replaced by another method. There are other strategies for suicide prevention that can be pursued in prison contexts that do not result in the suffering caused by the approach at Pelican Bay. (American Public Health Association, Standards for Health Services in Correctional Institutions; World Health Organization, Preventing Suicide in Prison, 2007.)

  • An independent researcher, preferably a psychologist or physician, should interview prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU to understand the impact of the 30-minute check policy and propose appropriate solutions.

Jail and Prison Health Committee, American Public Health Association
APHA Annual Meeting, Chicago, Illinois
November 2, 2015