Dear Mr. Hayes,
I write because you are the suicide expert in Coleman v Governor of California. I believe you are a person of good intent, and that your work on suicide prevention indicates the level of your compassion. However I write with serious concerns and prisoners’ complaints about the suffering caused by the so-called “security/welfare checks” in Pelican Bay SHU and the Central California Women’s Facility. Because of the severe sleep disruption and deprivation they are causing, I urge you to recommend or direct that the checks in these units be halted.
I am particularly concerned because___________________________________________________________________________________
A prisoner said: ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
In CCWF death row, 20 women wrote in June 2014 after 5 weeks of these checks: “Flashing lights, banging on doors and lack of sleep have caused some of us to go into seizures. Some of us have had to raise/change meds just to cope, because of the monitoring, banging, beeping, and flashlights… This is torture. We are being emotionally, mentally and physically battered by the security checks throughout the nights.”
From among the many Pelican Bay SHU letters and interviews: “I learned to be disciplined for survival in prison, and SHU, but now I cannot focus. The things that I’ve disciplined myself to do in SHU now are interrupted and very difficult because of the sleep deprivation.”
“The result of all this is that we can’t sleep longer than 30 minutes at any time . . . at times I’m jolted awake with my heart racing from the pod door or a hard hit to the button next to my cell by the C/O’s wand. It’s constant and excessive noise which causes me to be tired all the time and not be my normal self either mentally or physically.”
Sleep deprivation increases the risk of numerous chronic and potentially terminal conditions and illnesses. While these serious risks threaten people living otherwise healthy lives, they are remarkably higher for people living in solitary confinement, an already traumatizing environment. You have written that it is important to look at the number of suicides over a long period of time. The suicide rates in PB SHU and CCWF death row are low; one suicide in 10 years and none in 20 years, respectively. Considering the incredible harm the checks are causing, I urge you to recommend or direct that the checks in these units be halted. Their effects run counter to their purported purpose. Sleep expert Zeitzer and psychiatrist Kupers concluded people suffering from them may be at a higher suicide risk than before these checks began.
Suicidal prisoners should not be in SHU in the first place. Studies of solitary confinement demonstrate that it actually causes emotional breakdowns and suicidal thoughts and behavior. You yourself concluded in your 2011 report that CDCR’s suicide-watch practices increased the risk of prisoner suicides.
The response that people are getting from prison healthcare staff when they become distressed or sick from the disrupted sleep underscores the inadequate mental health care in these facilities. I understand that you value personal attention and a more nuanced and individualized approach to prevent suicide, but these “security” checks are being used as a blanket practice, whether prisoners are suicidal or not.
Once again I ask that these blanket checks be halted and replaced with true mental health services to prevent suicides. One simple option would be to require an emergency button in each cell for prisoners to summon help in a crisis. An optimal solution would be to create a system of correction that does not drive prisoners insane.
Cc: Matthew Lopes, Jr.