Policy of the Cruel and Absurd: Sleep Deprivation in California’s Prisons

By Charlie Hinton, Verbena Lea, and Willow Katz

In prison isolation units throughout California, guards wake prisoners up every 30 minutes under the guise of suicide prevention. These “security/welfare checks” cause ongoing sleep deprivation. The United Nations and many sleep and mental health experts have long defined sleep deprivation as a form of torture, and sleep deprivation often is used as a torture technique for prisoners of war. So California tortures its prisoners to prevent them from killing themselves.

Dr. Jamie Zeitzer, Ph.D., an expert in sleep and circadian rhythms, concluded in a 2015 report:

“The current practice of 30 minute … checks of inmates housed in the [Security Housing Units] is likely a cause of severe sleep disruption … The mandated purpose of these … checks (i.e. suicide prevention) is, in fact, likely to have the opposite effect and inadvertently increase suicidality in these individuals … There have been no direct studies of intentionally waking an individual every thirty minutes every night for days, weeks, or months, as doing so would be considered highly unethical in a research environment.”

Yet this is the reality for people housed in California’s Security Housing Units (SHUs), Administrative Segregation Units (Ad-Segs/ASUs), Condemned Units (death row) and Psychiatric Services Units (PSUs). In these solitary confinement cells, prisoners are kept alone 24 hours a day with no direct contact with other people — except guards. Known effects of such isolation include suicidal thoughts and behavior, yet the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) fails to provide adequate, if any, mental or physical health services. Instead, it keeps people locked up in brutally oppressive conditions, and jars them awake every 30 minutes, purportedly to see if they’ve committed suicide.

artwork by R.T. 2016

CDCR does not even acknowledge that prolonged isolation is torture and psychologically harmful. They use the “checks” as a blanket practice, whether or not prisoners are suicidal and despite the fact that sleep deprivation increases the risk of suicide. In CCWF death row, where the checks began in May 2014, there has not been a suicide since 1991 [pg 6 in link]; in Pelican Bay SHU where the checks began in August 2015, there has been one suicide in 13 years. Prisoners point out these histories as they question the purpose of the “checks.” These “checks” only exacerbate CDCR’s abuse of prisoners and historic refusal to compassionately treat prisoners dealing with serious mental health issues, including suicide.

“CO’s can save lives by talking to potentially suicidal inmates…”1 Good interpersonal communication skills by guards are consistently recommended to prevent suicides in prison, but such skills are rare in CA prisons. Admitting suicidal feelings to prison staff will, ironically, subject prisoners to the brutality of “suicide watch.” Prisoners report that guards use the “security/welfare checks” to be as loud and disturbing as possible.

Paradoxically, these so-called “security/welfare checks” come as the result of a settlement, theoretically a victory to improve the conditions of prisoners, in a federal class-action lawsuit, Coleman v. Governor of CA. The Coleman court determined that California prison officials did not provide adequate mental health care, thus violating prisoners’ Eighth Amendment protection from cruel and unusual punishment.

The judge appointed Matthew Lopes as Special Master to oversee CDCR’s implementation of Coleman reforms for 35,000 prisoners with serious mental illness, and Lopes brought in “suicide expert” Lindsay Hayes as a consultant. Just prior to becoming the “suicide expert” under the Coleman Special Master, Hayes worked as a consultant for the defendant — the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation itself. Hayes endorses the 30-minute checks.

Even as he receives letters from prisoners suffering from the checks and those who support the prisoners from the outside, he has not responded, or, to our knowledge, recommended a change.
The California State Auditor recently released a report on suicides in CA prisons commissioned by the Joint Audit Committee of the CA legislature (http://tinyurl.com/yca9tvf5.) While the report concludes that “It [CDCR] Must Increase Its Efforts to Prevent and Respond to Inmate Suicides,” it does not address prison conditions – like brutal and racist guards and administration, solitary confinement, and the horrific “suicide watch,” when prisoners considered suicidal are “allowed only a no-tear smock or gown, a safety mattress, and a no-tear blanket. All furniture is removed, [and] staff must provide continuous, direct visual observation as well as nursing checks every 15 minutes,” instead of any kind of humane and compassionate care.

A representative from the Auditor’s office had contacted our committee for input. We provided written descriptions of the “security/welfare checks”, documentation from prisoners in 13 prisons describing the checks as torture and explaining the harm to their mental and physical health, and material opposing the checks from 3 sleep experts and the American Public Health Association. Nevertheless, the audit completely ignored the input of our committee and all “advocacy groups,” and apparently the auditor did not seek any input at all from prisoners. The report has little mention of the “security/welfare checks,” except to say 2 of the 4 prisons the Auditor examined “did not conduct these checks as required.” The report refers frequently, however, to the “suicide expert,” and calls for his recommendations to be implemented, clearly indicating support for the “security/welfare checks”.

Other experts, however, have recommended the checks be halted:

“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.… There are other strategies for suicide prevention that can be pursued in prison contexts that do not result in the suffering caused by th[is] approach …” — Jail and Prison Health Committee, American Public Health Association

“This level of [interrupted] sleep has been shown to have profound effects on cognitive performance, memory, mood, immune function, pain sensitivity, metabolism, and other parameters.… Importantly these effects accumulate across time. Thus as these checks are done nightly their negative effects will become greater across time … There is much research on disturbed sleep in Intensive Care Units in hospitals. Checking on patients for their safety has resulted in many ill effects. Today there are many initiatives to overcome the negative effects of this safety monitoring.”Dr. Thomas Roth, PhD Chief, Sleep Disorders and Research Center, Henry Ford Hospital

“A recent series of studies in Veterans has further pointed to the strong connection between suicidality and sleep, so much so that treatment of sleep problems in Veterans is considered part of the first line of treatment in reducing the risk of suicides.” — Dr. Jamie Zeitzer, PhD. Stanford University and the VA Palo Alto Health Care System

Continue reading

Press Release: Folsom Prison Hunger Strike Enters 9th Day – Families, Advocates to Rally in Folsom and L.A. to Support Prisoners’ Demands

For Immediate Release – Friday, June 2, 2017

WHAT:  Rally & Press Conference to Support Folsom Prison Hunger Strike

WHEN:  Sunday, June 4th from 12:00pm-2:00pm | Press Conference @ 1:00pm

WHERE:
Folsom: Folsom State Prison | E Natomas & Folsom Prison Road  (Folsom, CA 95630)

Los Angeles: Twin Towers Jail | 450 Bauchet St  (Los Angeles, CA 90012)

PRESS CONTACTS:

Courtney Hanson
photos.courtneyjade@gmail.com | (916) 316-0625

 Raquel Estrada
rpartida831@gmail.com | (831) 227-7679

Folsom—On Sunday, June 4th, 2017, human rights advocates will hold a rally outside of Folsom State Prison (FSP) to amplify the voices of people incarcerated in the Administrative Segregation Unit (ASU) at FSP, who have been on hunger strike since May 25th. Prisoners in Building 4 of ASU are striking because they are forced in live in conditions that are inhumane and constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the U.S. Constitution. Despite the fact that FSP is aware of the dangerous consequences of prolonged social isolation, they continue to deprive prisoners of basic human needs, including normal human contact, environmental and sensory stimulation, mental and physical health, physical exercise, sleep, access to courts, and meaningful activity.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is aware (Madrid-Ashker-Coleman) that the conditions of extreme isolation will likely inflict some degree of psychological trauma, including but not limited to: chronic insomnia, severe concentration and memory problems, anxiety and other ailments. The CDCR and the general public have a heightened awareness about this issue because of the prisoner hunger strikes that swept California in 2011 and 2013 and involved more than 30,000 prisoners. Those strikes led to Ashker v. Brown, a federal class action lawsuit asserting that prolonged solitary violates the 8th Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment) and putting someone in solitary based on gang association violates the 14th Amendment (no due process). The case reached settlement in September 2015, ending indeterminate solitary confinement terms in Security Housing Units (SHUs), but did not prevent prisoners from being kept in prolonged solitary confinement in Administrative Segregation.

FSP continues to claim that lack of money prevents them from abiding by CDCR’s stated goals, and are content to not only ignore the suffering of men in its care, but to retaliate against them for their peaceful protest.

“On the afternoon of May 27th, someone called on my husband’s behalf relaying his message that Warden Ron Rackley and Ombudsman Sara Smith had a meeting with him where they communicated that they were upset with the hunger strike and threatened to take away his visits, move him to another prison, give him a 115 and revalidate him as a Security Threat Group (STG) gang leader for his role in organizing the hunger strike. On May 28th, I arrived to visit and the Sergeant informed me that my husband is no longer at FSP and was moved to DVI Tracy.” —Raquel Estrada

Folsom prison hunger strikers have the following demands, which are published in greater detail here.

  1. PROVIDE ADEQUATE ACCESS TO COURTS AND LEGAL ASSISTANCE

  2. PROVIDE MEANINGFUL EDUCATION, SELF-HELP COURSES AND REHABILITATIVE PROGRAMS

  3. ALLOW POSSESSION OF TELEVISIONS

  4. PROVIDE EXERCISE EQUIPMENT, INCLUDING PULL-UP BARS, FOR MEANINGFUL EXERCISE IN YARD

  5. END CRUELTY, NOISE AND SLEEP DEPRIVATION OF WELFARE CHECKS

  6. KEEP ORIGINAL PROPER PACKAGING FOR COMMISSARY AND CANTEEN

  7. GIVE NON-DISCIPLINARY STATUS TO QUALIFYING PRISONERS

  8. PROVIDE ADEQUATE AND APPROPRIATE CLOTHING AND SHOES

  9. PROVIDE FOOD BOWL AND CUP

###

Endorsed by Sacramento Solidarity Network, California Families Against Solitary Confinement, Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, Peoples’ Action for Rights and Community, All of Us or None, Legal Services for Prisoners With Children, Democratic Socialists of America Sacramento, Party for Socialism and Liberation, Showing Up for Racial Justice Sacramento, Freedom Outreach, Underground Scholars

Updates + Help the Riverside Hunger Strikers Win Humane Conditions

April 26, 2017: About 30 people inside of Robert Presley Detention Center and at least one in Southwest Detention Center in Riverside, CA have been on hunger strike since April 13, 2017. Jail administrators have yet to meet with the strikers to address their concerns. The Riverside County Jails’ conditions undermine the prisoners’/detainees’ rights and dignity.

Hunger Strike Announcement from prisoners in Robert Presley Detention Center (Jail) Administrative Segregation (Solitary Confinement)
[includes demands] https://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/2017/03/28/hunger-strike-in-riverside-county-jails-begins-april-13-2017

WOMEN ON HUNGER STRIKE IN ROBERT PRESLEY DETENTION CENTER
Reports from April 26, 2017 are that some women prisoners in Robert Presley Detention Center have joined in the hunger strike. They too have stopped eating. We will share more information as we learn it, reaching out for family members of those women. We expect there may be additional issues for the women prisoners that they are striking about. We will find out.

14 DAYS WITHOUT EATING
Four people on hunger strike in Robert Presley Detention Center have passed out. Three of them have had trips to outside medical facilities. Riverside Sheriff’s Dept. runs the Robert Presley and has been retaliating, trying to intimidate the hunger strikers. For almost two weeks, they have not allowed family visits, and they limited phone access, cut off all commissary, and levied rules violations1 against the people on peaceful hunger strike. On April 26, Day 14 of the Hunger Strike, we learned that visits, telephone, and commissary have been restored and the rules violations withdrawn. Outside pressure stopped that retaliation! It is well past time for the Riverside Board of Supervisors and Sheriff’s Dept. to meet with the strikers and address the reasons for the strike- inhumane and needlessly restrictive policies!

INTERVIEW WITH FAMILY MEMBERS ON SOJOURNER TRUTH RADIO
On the morning of April 26, 2017, Margaret Prescod of Sojourner Truth Radio on KPFK, spoke with two family members of a man who’s been awaiting trial for 3 years in solitary, and has been on hunger strike in Riverside County Jail since the first day, April 13. Sojourner Truth Radio: Detainees in Riverside County Jail Launch Hunger Strike https://soundcloud.com/sojournertruthradio/sojourner-truth-radio-detainees-in-riverside-county-jail-launch-hunger-strike

WHAT YOU CAN DO TO SUPPORT THE HUNGER STRIKE

⇒SHARE THIS UPDATE FAR AND WIDE. 

⇒SIGN (and share) THIS PETITION
“Support Riverside County Jail Hunger Strikers!” Petition by Riverside All Of Us Or None to the Board of Supervisors and Sheriff’s Dept. https://www.change.org/p/riverside-county-board-of-supervisors-support-riverside-county-jail-hunger-strikers

⇒MAKE CALLS (or continue making calls); Sample Script HERE
BOARD OF SUPERVISORS:
Kevin Jeffries: (951) 955-1010
John Tavaglione: (951) 955-1020
Chuck Washington: (951) 955-1030
Marion Ashley: (951) 955-1050
SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT:(951) 955-2400 Press Option 4
RIVERSIDE COUNTY ROBERT PRESLEY JAIL: (951) 955-4500 Press Option 1 then Option 8

⇒SEND A LETTER to the Riverside Board of Supervisors
• U.S. Mail address: 4080 Lemon Street, 5th Floor, Riverside, California 92501
• Email addresses: district1@rcbos.org, district2@rcbos.org, district3@rcbos.org, district5@rcbos.org
Sample letter: http://wp.me/a1BB1k-35h
Encourage and help your organizations, churches, etc. to write a letter, too.

⇒FILE A COMPLAINT WITH RIVERSIDE GRAND JURY
Please fill this out if you are a Riverside resident
http://countyofriverside.us/Portals/0/GrandJury/GrandJury2013-2014/grandjurycmpltform.pdf

⇒MAY DAY RALLY!
Join a Rally on Monday, May 1st in support of the Hunger Strikers on their 17th day. More details will be out soon.
Our Rally will be alongside the May Day Marches and Rallies honoring International Workers Day and Immigrant Rights Day.


1 In March 2015, a state appeals court says a California prisoner who took part in a mass hunger strike protesting long-term solitary confinement should not have been punished for disorderly behavior because he did not disrupt prison operations or endanger anyone. This should apply also to jail prisoners/detainees. https://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/2016/04/26/ca-state-court-prisoner-cant-be-punished-for-hunger-strike/

Over 1,500 Palestinian Prisoners on Hunger Strike in Israeli Prisons

Freedom & Dignity Strike

New Statement from the Palestinian Prisoners’ Movement Reaffirms Urgent Call For Support 

April 26, 2017  Day 10
The Palestinian prisoners’ movement participating in the hunger strike in Israeli prisons issued a new statement on 26 April, the 10th day of the hunger strike which began 17 April 2017, Palestinian Prisoners’ Day.

The over 1500 hunger strikers have a series of demands, including an end to the denial of family visits, the right to appropriate health care, the right to education in prison and an end to solitary confinement and “administrative detention,” imprisonment without charge or trial.  Read full statement here by the Palestinian Prisoners Movement on behalf of the strikers and translated to English.

Why We Are on Hunger Strike in Israel’s Prisons

By Marwan Barghouti – April 16, 2017  Day 1
NY Times Opinion Pages

HADARIM PRISON, Israel — Having spent the last 15 years in an Israeli prison, I have been both a witness to and a victim of Israel’s illegal system of mass arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment of Palestinian prisoners. After exhausting all other options, I decided there was no choice but to resist these abuses by going on a hunger strike.

Some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners have decided to take part in this hunger strike, which begins today, the day we observe here as Prisoners’ Day. Hunger striking is the most peaceful form of resistance available. It inflicts pain solely on those who participate and on their loved ones, in the hopes that their empty stomachs and their sacrifice will help the message resonate beyond the confines of their dark cells.

Decades of experience have proved that Israel’s inhumane system of colonial and military occupation aims to break the spirit of prisoners and the nation to which they belong, by inflicting suffering on their bodies, separating them from their families and communities, using humiliating measures to compel subjugation. In spite of such treatment, we will not surrender to it.

Israel, the occupying power, has violated international law in multiple ways for nearly 70 years, and yet has been granted impunity for its actions. It has committed grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions against the Palestinian people; the prisoners, including men, women and children, are no exception.

I was only 15 when I was first imprisoned. I was barely 18 when an Israeli interrogator forced me to spread my legs while I stood naked in the interrogation room, before hitting my genitals. I passed out from the pain, and the resulting fall left an everlasting scar on my forehead. The interrogator mocked me afterward, saying that I would never procreate because people like me give birth only to terrorists and murderers.

A few years later, I was again in an Israeli prison, leading a hunger strike, when my first son was born. Instead of the sweets we usually distribute to celebrate such news, I handed out salt to the other prisoners. When he was barely 18, he in turn was arrested and spent four years in Israeli prisons.

The eldest of my four children is now a man of 31. Yet here I still am, pursuing this struggle for freedom along with thousands of prisoners, millions of Palestinians and the support of so many around the world. What is it with the arrogance of the occupier and the oppressor and their backers that makes them deaf to this simple truth: Our chains will be broken before we are, because it is human nature to heed the call for freedom regardless of the cost.

Israel has built nearly all of its prisons inside Israel rather than in the occupied territory. In doing so, it has unlawfully and forcibly transferred Palestinian civilians into captivity, and has used this situation to restrict family visits and to inflict suffering on prisoners through long transports under cruel conditions. It turned basic rights that should be guaranteed under international law — including some painfully secured through previous hunger strikes — into privileges its prison service decides to grant us or deprive us of.

Palestinian prisoners and detainees have suffered from torture, inhumane and degrading treatment, and medical negligence. Some have been killed while in detention. According to the latest count from the Palestinian Prisoners Club, about 200 Palestinian prisoners have died since 1967 because of such actions. Palestinian prisoners and their families also remain a primary target of Israel’s policy of imposing collective punishments.

Through our hunger strike, we seek an end to these abuses.

Continue reading

Great NEW VIDEO: “Breaking Down the Box” (40 min.)

TORTURE IS A MORAL ISSUE

As the grievous loss of Kalief Browder reveals, we must act with urgency to end the devastation of solitary confinement. To that end, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture announces the release of a new NRCAT film, Breaking Down the Box, a 40-minute documentary for communities of faith, to expose the torture of solitary confinement in the context of mass incarceration in the United States.

Breaking Down the Box from NRCAT on Vimeo.

Produced by filmmaker Matthew Gossage, the film examines the mental health, racial justice and human rights implications of the systemic use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. It is a call to action for communities of faith to engage in the growing nationwide movement for restorative alternatives to isolated confinement that prioritize rehabilitation, therapeutic interventions, and recovery.  Watch the film online and then download or order a DVD for use in your congregation or community, at no cost. More resources and DVD order form at www.nrcat.org/breakingdownthebox

Please spread the word:

Twitter  New documentary from @NRCATtweets exposes torture of #solitaryconfinement in context of mass incarceration www.nrcat.org/breakingdownthebox

fb_logo  Watch a new documentary exposing the torture of solitary confinement in the context of mass incarceration in the U.S.  Film and resources for faith communities at www.nrcat.org/breakingdownthebox

***
We encourage you to share this new resource in your community during June Torture Awareness Month and throughout the year. Additional promotional and discussion materials are available at www.nrcat.org/breakingdownthebox.

Thank you for your commitment to building a #TortureFreeWorld together.

In community,

Rev. Laura Markle Downton
Director of U.S. Prisons Policy and Program

Palestinian Prisoner Hunger Strike Suspended After 63 DAYS

From their hospital beds the hunger strikers remain steadfast in their cause: “Administrative detention contradicts democratic and humane values, especially in the arbitrary way that Israel uses it, as there is no justification. There should be strong resistance by everyone in prison or outside against this policy because it greatly harms people, their dignity, family and children.”

Hunger Strike Suspended

Wednesday, June 25 2014:  The Palestinian “Prisoners Center for Studies” has reported that hunger striking Palestinian detainees, held by Israel under arbitrary Administrative Detention orders, announced suspending their strike after reaching an agreement with the Israeli security officials, and Prison Administration officials.

detaineessick.jpg

In a statement, the detainees said that, as the Israeli aggression escalates against the Palestinian people, and in an attempt to give the families of the detainees some relief, following 63 days of hunger strike carried out by their detained family members, a decision was made to suspend the strike.

“To grant our families some relief, especially before the holy month of Ramadan starts, and following 63 days of ongoing hunger strike, we have decided to suspend our strike”, the statement reads, “We held meetings with Israeli officials, and will release details of the agreement after all hospitalized hunger strikers are discharged”. Continue reading