Sleep Deprivation Leaves No Physical Scars, But It's Torture - How California Prisons Are Dehumanizing Inmates
Sleep. It's a basic human function. And experts say it's the key to good health. But sleep is in short supply for prisoners in secure housing units in the supermax Pelican Bay prison in Crescent City, California. That's because authorities have been conducting loud and disruptive cell checks 24 hours a day. We heard from family members of 13 inmates who told us since August prisoners have been denied adequate sleep due to 48 guard cell checks per day. As a result, these prisoners are getting much less sleep, persistently interrupted sleep, and significantly lower quality of sleep than before these checks started. It's a practice that is raising concerns from both families of inmates and advocates who say this is just another example of how our country's massive prison-industrial complex dehumanizes inmates. On this episode of Rattling the Bars, we speak with people who are fighting to stop this irrational prison policy. Carol Strickman is a lawyer with legal services with prisoners with children. She has been directly involved in trying to eliminate the policy.
CAROL STRICKMAN: A few years ago a court order was issued to implement 30 minute checks in all the--30-minute checks every half hour, 24/7, 48 times a day in the isolation cells in California state prisons. Announced the, what we call the SHUs, the Secured Housing Units, the administrative segregation, death row, psychiatric units and so on. CONWAY: Daletha Hayden is part of the organization California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement, and has a son in Pelican Bay.
DALETHA HAYDEN: I have a son that's in Pelican Bay Secure Housing Unit. And he's been there since June of 2015.
CONWAY: Daletha is a resident of the Inland Empire, Southern California. Her son initially was imprisoned in the region, but last year was moved to Pelican Bay, roughly 700 miles away. Daletha describes the impact that the move had on her and her son's relationship.
HAYDEN: Before he was transferred there, when he was at Tehachapi, I saw him every other weekend. Then he was moved further away to Corcoran. I still was doing every other weekend, even though that was a four-hour drive. And then since we went to, since he was moved June 2 of 2015 to Pelican Bay, I've been up there four times.
STRICKMAN: And we have, when this program of 30 minute checks started being implemented there, which was just last August, we heard just a huge amount of protest coming from the prisoners that we'd been representing.
VERBENA LEA: People in the Pelican Bay SHU are not able to sleep day or night, so it's 24 hours. In addition to the buzzers there's also the guards making loud thumping noises. There's all the acoustics.
CONWAY: Verbena Lea is a human rights advocate with Prisoners Hunger Strike Solidarity, an organization that emerged from the 2011 prisoners hunger strike throughout California. Verbena has been a leading spokesperson against the wellness checks.
LEA: Tonight at 10:00 it will be 120 days, 24 hours a day, in the Pelican Bay SHU of being woke up every 20-30 minutes.
CONWAY: The warden from Pelican Bay explains the theory behind the checks as attempting to prevent suicide.
PELICAN BAY WARDEN: The welfare checks were put in place, obviously, to check on the welfare of inmates, to mitigate issues of suicide, things of that nature, that are statistically higher within segregated housing units.
CONWAY: But activists say that the checks are only creating more physical and mental harm.
STRICKMAN: You know, we know from the science and from the experts on sleep that, you know, sleep deprivation, persistent sleep deprivation can cause a myriad of harms, mental and physical.
HAYDEN: And this is definitely not rehabilitative. It's destructive.
LEA: People can't read, they can't concentrate. People are getting dizzy, they're fainting. Sleep deprivation like that can cause strokes, it can kill people. CONWAY: Studies have shown the importance of sleep to people's mental and physical health. Daletha's son recently was hospitalized due to intestinal issues that may have been a result of the wellness check.
HAYDEN: Well, I found out, you know, just last week that my son had been admitted to the hospital for a couple of days. And he had some intestinal issues. And you know, just reading the professional studies that, stating the effects of not only solitary confinement, but worse yet the sleep deprivation, could very easily be the result of, you know, the cause of what was happening with him intestinally. It can reduce your appetite, it fatigues you and puts a lot more stress on you. So then, you know, now he's going in with intestinal issues that could very well be a result of that. And you know, to have to go to the hospital and get, you know, a day of, of rest.
CONWAY: According to the testimony of prisoners in Pelican Bay, the treatment they have been receiving is compatible to torture, and it's a violation of the Eighth Amendment, and also a violation of the Geneva Convention. STRICKMAN: One of our experts had written that, you know, we all know about the problem of suicide among veterans who have come back from Iraq and other wars and conflicts. And one of the first things that they do, when they try to help people that are in that situation, is to make sure their sleep is good. That making sure people have good sleep is one of the first things you do if you think they may have a tendency towards suicide. So we are, you know, here in the name of mental health we're doing something that is more likely to cause someone to become suicidal. CONWAY: However, there is still hope. There is a lawsuit that has been successful in releasing people from solitary.
HAYDEN: The Ashker settlement has had a great deal of effect on it. It's moving a lot of people out of solitary confinement. The settlement has brought so many of our loved ones out. In fact, in our group, just myself and one other person, our loved ones, are still there in Pelican Bay. So we're very hopeful that they'll be out soon.
CONWAY: Additionally, Daletha claims her son is a wrongful conviction.
HAYDEN: My son is a wrongful conviction, and prayerfully very soon in coming years, one of these innocence projects, you'll see him and his name, you know, there as one of those that has been released. So we are still working on his case.