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

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March 23: HIP HOP FOR CHANGE and PHSS Event!

Please join Hip Hop for Change and Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition (PHSS) for an evening of powerful Spoken Word and discussion from 6pm to 9pm at the Niebyl-Proctor Library in Oakland, CA.  

This event is in solidarity with the CA prisoners who challenged the torture of solitary confinement and created the historic Agreement to End Hostilities.  We hope to help cultivate strong community connections inside and outside prisons and grow community support in the prisoner class struggle.  The work to end solitary confinement and create true social justice continues.  Social justice does not include destroying lives, families and communities with incarceration, isolation, and torture. 

Right now we must stop the cruel Sleep Deprivation that began many months ago against people in solitary at Pelican Bay and CA Central Women’s Facility.

Saturday, March 23rd is a day of Statewide Coordinated Actions To End Solitary Confinement and, nationwide, groups are conducting actions as part of Together to End Solitary. This event in Oakland is connected to a nationwide momentum to end solitary confinement.

Please share the Facebook event:

Wednesday, March 23, 2016
6:00pm – 9:00pm
Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library 6501 Telegraph Ave, Oakland, California 94609
Donations gladly accepted
For more info:  510.426.5322, jp@hiphopforchange.org, phssreachingout@gmail.com

PHSS is excited to collaborate with Hip Hop for Change!  For three years, Hip Hop for Change has been educating youth about social justice issues, Hip Hop culture, history, and the power of self-expression!!! They volunteer with organizations that are uplifting historically marginalized community, they start gardens and donate thousands of hours. Hip Hop for Change throws Hip Hop shows that provide platforms for artists with empowering social justice-oriented narratives!!! 

PHOTOS and REPORTBACKS from Rally Against the Torture of Prisoners

On February 1, 2016, people from all over California gathered in Sacramento at the headquarters of the CA Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCr) to demand an end to the dangerous and deliberate sleep deprivation being inflicted on the people in solitary in Pelican Bay State Prison SHU, under the guise of “welfare checks”.

Before the Rally, more than 15 formerly incarcerated people, family members, pen pals, and other activists visited the offices of Loni Hancock (chair of the CA Senate Public Safety Senate Committee), Bill Quirk (chair of the CA Assembly Public Safety Committee), and reps from various districts to demand the immediate suspension of the sleep deprivation “welfare checks” in the Pelican Bay SHU.  Sleep Deprivation Is Torture.

Reportbacks below are from Martha Esquivel of San Diego, CA and James Decker of Eureka, CA.
Photos are from Liberated Lens Collective, Lucas Guilkey, James Decker, and Urszula Frydman. Please inquire about photo accreditation before using unlabeled photos.

from Martha Esquivel:
I’m so very thankful for having the opportunity to go to Sacramento and stand up with you all in front of CDCr and show them our unity, meet new people and listen to their stories… about how their loved ones are being tortured by CDCr, our employees. Yes, our employees. Because they get paid with our taxes, and instead of rehabilitating our loved ones who make mistakes, they are looking for methods to keep the torture going one way or another.


Photo by Liberated Lens Collective

Almost 5 years ago, we were standing outside CDCr demanding CDCr stop the torture of our loved ones in Indefinite Isolation.  We proved to them that was torture. We Won and now CDCr has found another way of torturing them, by not letting them sleep. It has been 6 months of sleep deprivation and they know that it is torture.

Back in 2011, we didn’t have a clue what to do, we only knew that our loved ones were being Tortured and they needed our support. Our loved ones pushed from the inside and we pushed from the outside, and we got the Victory.  Today, we are more people fighting for our loved ones in prison. Some of them are out of the SHU, but we are still here fighting for the one’s still in the SHU. We are not leaving anyone behind. Together We know We can make a change, and we just want to let CDCr know that regarding this new chapter of torture they have created: We are going to win too, because our movement is a movement of Love, and we believe in rehabilitating humans not destroying them!
Martha Esquivel is active in California Families Against Solitary Confinement and the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition; She is sister to Luis Esquivel, a named Plaintiff in Ashker v Brown, now out of Pelican Bay SHU after 15 years in solitary there.


Photo by Lucas Guilkey

from James Decker:
I was proud to be part of the contingent from far northern California to attend the Rally Against the Torture of Prisoners on February 1, 2016. We gathered just after noon, a group of family members, formerly incarcerated persons, activists, attorneys, and faith leaders. Diverse members of the community gathering with a single purpose: to stop the sleep deprivation torture.


I was moved by the testimony of those folks fighting for the very lives of their loved ones. More then 70 people were there to listen and demand action!  Women, mostly women of color, spoke about a racist system fueled by capitalism that has devastated their families and robbed their communities.



Thanks to the folks that helped create these powerful posters and the Artist Richard Torres.


Carol Strickman gave us an update from the legal team.  The folks from Food Not Bombs in Oakland brought nutritious food.  Sarah Torres provided stirring music and chants went up spontaneously from the crowd demanding “LET THEM SLEEP!”


Cynthia spoke of the callous neglect and medical malpractice that is rampant in the prison system. It resulted in the death of her brother.

We must keep the pressure up to end this abominable behavior by the Department of Corrections and the State of California.

In solidarity,
James Decker works with Peoples’ Action for Rights and Community and the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition.


Photo by Liberated Lens Collective

More Photos! Continue reading

Feb 1st: RALLY Against the Torture of Prisoners

2016- PHSS- End Sleep Deprivation Rally- Feb 1

Rally Against the Torture of Prisoners Feb 1, 2016

As of February 1st, it will be 181 days that the men in Pelican Bay SHU have been tortured by sleep deprivation. For six months the men have been awakened every 30 minutes, 48 times per day, due to so-called “security/welfare checks” by guards.

“…they’re killing us with these Guard One/Welfare Checks…I don’t know what to do? We really are suffering right now and I can assure you that this is worse than the hunger strikes.” PB SHU prisoner Oct. 2015

Join us in Sacramento on February 1st, 2016 at 1:00 pm to rally against the torture of prisoners!

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) claims these ‘checks’ will prevent suicide. Instead, these checks are causing serious psychological and physical harm. John R. Martinez, in solitary for 15 years, stated that the checks “are counter-productive to their so called intended purpose (mental health care) and serve zero legitimate penological purpose other than to harass and mentally torment us prisoners.”

Come and stand with us to put an end to torturous ‘welfare checks’ in the SHU.

RIDESHARES will be leaving from Southern California, Santa Cruz, the SF Bay Area, the North Coast, and locations in between. PHSS will help with travel expenses.  Please contact phssreachingout@gmail.com, 510-426-5322 if you need or can provide a ride. You can also message Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity on Facebook.

We need to make the Senate and Assembly Public Safety Committees and Governor Brown stop this now!

We must keep the pressure on!

Media Advisory HERE.


For RIDESHARE info and MEETING WITH LEGISLATORS before the Rally, Continue reading

PRISONER HUMAN RIGHTS! events Jan 22 & Feb 1

Join Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition for two events to


Peter Collins-Solidarity withPBHunger Strike

Solitary Man

Solo Performance by Charlie Hinton,
followed by discussion

When: Friday, Jan 22 at 7pm

Where: Omni Commons

4799 Shattuck Ave
Oakland 94609

Charlie created Solitary Man based on his letters and visits with people in solitary confinement. The show is set in 2014, a year after the largest prisoner hunger strike in history.

Charlie says,“I want this show to gain an audience and become one more voice calling for the end of mass incarceration and solitary confinement…The world is such a cold and cruel place these days, I want Solitary Man to add at least one drop of humanity.”

After the performance, we will discuss how and why the men in Pelican Bay SHU have been continuously deprived of sleep since Aug 2, 2015.

Suggested Donation $5-15, snacks & beverages provided
No one turned away for lack of funds

Facebook: SOLITARY MAN, Performance by Charlie Hinton


Rally in Sacramento Against the Torture of Prisoners

When: Monday, Feb 1st at 1pm

Where: CA Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Headquarters

1515 S St. Sacramento, CA  95811

Since Aug 2, 2015, people in Pelican Bay SHU have been jolted awake by guards doing loud “checks” every 30 minutes. This cruel torture tactic is causing serious psychological and physical harm. Sleep deprivation is inhumane.  Join us to demand an immediate end to this torture.

No more torture in our name!


Rally Against the Torture of Prisoners