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California Jail Prisoners Claim Sleep Deprivation; Court Issues Injunction

by Kevin W. Bliss

In March 2019, Judge James Donato of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California issued a preliminary injunction that prohibited Alameda County’s jail system from depriving prisoners of their constitutional right to sleep. Judge Donato ordered jail officials to revise their practice of 3 a.m. medication calls and 4 a.m. breakfast, and directed the parties to work out the rest of the details to resolve the prisoners’ claims.

Attorneys Yolanda Huang and Dennis Cunningham represented two classes of plaintiffs who were allowed to combine their complaints addressing excessive sleep deprivation, which they argued violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. 

The lead plaintiffs in one of the cases, Tikisha Upshaw and Tyreka Stewart, filed a complaint against the Santa Rita Jail challenging its practices of keeping cell lights on 24 hours a day, hourly security checks requiring guards to wake prisoners to ensure they are alive and uninjured, night drills for new employees practicing forced relocation of prisoners to other areas of the jail, and early medication and meal calls.

All of those factors limited the prisoners – who were pre-trial detainees not yet convicted of a crime – to just one or two hours of uninterrupted sleep each night, they said, which resulted in sleep deprivation that impaired their memory, caused depression and anxiety, and lowered their immune system.

As a result, the complaint stated, “prisoners find themselves short-tempered and irritable, experience difficulty exercising emotional control, unable to handle frustration and often lack the necessary behavior controls demanded by the jail system,” leaving them to “suffer disciplinary and punitive consequences with ensuing additional deprivations.”

In the other lawsuit, lead plaintiffs Jaclyn Mohrbacher and Andrea Hernandez filed a complaint claiming a “pattern and practice of aggressively misogynistic, apparently programmatic, maltreatment of women prisoners” had caused two miscarriages and an unattended birth in solitary confinement.

Cunningham said the issue of sleep deprivation in the case came to light among the other claims being litigated. The plaintiffs argued that depriving women prisoners of sleep caused systemic inflammation associated with pregnancy, and contributed to postpartum depression, negative birth outcomes and pre-term delivery.

Judge Donato stated in his order, “the body has to sleep, I’m sold on that.” He was not willing to completely abolish nighttime safety checks, but felt a compromise of issuing sleep masks and ear plugs to prisoners to mitigate the inconvenience was appropriate. 

“There is no question that running a jail is an extremely difficult task, and the discretion of the sheriff’s department to solve problems and protect the health and safety of detainees should be treated with a substantial measure of deference,” Donato wrote. “But the Constitution does not permit inhumane treatment of duly convicted prisoners, all the more so for pretrial detainees who have not had their day in court.”

In April 2019, Alameda County jail officials agreed to a joint proposal that stipulated cell lights would be turned off at 11 p.m., then turned back on at 5 a.m. on weekdays and 6 a.m. on weekends. They also agreed to limit the use of flashlights during bed checks and to stop guards from banging on cell doors during the night. See: Upshaw v. Alameda County, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 3:18-cv-07814-JD.

The following month, on May 20, 2019, a similar class-action lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California by ten prisoners held in San Francisco’s jail system, raising claims related to lack of uninterrupted sleep.

“This ongoing, nightly sleep deprivation and disturbance has created a cascading negative effect on prisoners’ abilities to function at the cognitive, physical, and psychiatric levels,” according to the complaint. “Cognitive impairment adversely impacts pretrial prisoners’ ability to assist in their legal defense.”

When prisoners filed grievances over their inability to sleep, Sheriff Vicki Hennessy responded that hourly safety checks at night were “necessary to assure that no inmate is being victimized or attempting to hurt themselves,” while 3:30 a.m. breakfast calls were to ensure “that inmates arrive to their court appearances in a timely fashion.” Regardless, the sheriff said those policies and practices would be reviewed. The lawsuit remains pending. See: Poot v. San Francisco County Sheriff’s Department, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 4:19-cv-02722-KAW. 

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Additional sources: courthousenews.com, latimes.com, patch.com, missionlocal.org

Related legal case

Poot v. San Francisco County Sheriff’s Department