SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Alameda County jail officials are exposing women inmates to mental and physical illness and potentially harming their pregnancies by depriving them of sleep, three female inmates claim in a federal class action filed in San Francisco on Monday.
Suing on behalf of women incarcerated at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, California, lead plaintiffs Tikisha Upshaw, Tyreka Stewart and Andrea Hernandez claim inmates there are forced to awaken almost hourly for safety checks, pill calls and employee training, in violation of constitutional guarantees against the use of cruel and unusual punishment.
All pre-trial detainees, the three women claim the jail’s sleep practices have impaired their memory and speech, contributed to the development of depression and anxiety and compromised their immune systems.
Upshaw, who has been at Santa Rita for over two years, says she gets sick more often, and she is having trouble helping her attorneys prepare her legal defense because she has difficulty thinking and concentrating.
Hernandez, meanwhile, spends 23 hours per day in solitary confinement – where sleep deprivation is worse – even though she might be pregnant. According to Hernandez, sleep deprivation causes systemic inflammation that has been associated with pregnancy and postpartum depression and with negative birth outcomes, including pre-term delivery.
“Severe sleep deprivation has been labeled torture,” class attorney Yolanda Huang said in an email Monday. “If the sheriff of Alameda is genuinely concerned about the safety issues and the smooth operation of Santa Rita Jail, he will insure that all prisoners can get much needed and vital rest.”
The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office had no immediate comment Monday.
According to the 25-page complaint, the sheriff’s office often trains new hires during nighttime hours, during which heavily armed trainees dressed in SWAT uniforms enter inmates’ cells.
During these exercises, inmates are required to wake up and lie face forward on the floor of their cells, and some are handcuffed, evacuated and sequestered one at a time to other areas of the jail, including the yard, the multi-purpose room and isolation cells, the suit claims.
Inmates are also awoken for state-mandated hourly safety checks. But instead of limiting the checks to visual observation, sheriffs’ deputies shine bright, white-light flashlights into sleeping inmates’ faces, and bang on metal cell-doors and yell inmates’ names if the light fails to wake them.
Moreover, lights in cells are never turned off; even during nighttime hours, when lights are dimmed, the lighting is still bright enough to read, the plaintiffs say. Inmates who try to block out the glare by pulling blankets over their heads are punished.
The practices can land inmates in solitary confinement, where uninterrupted sleep is even more limited, they say. While Santa Rita’s regular jail schedule theoretically allows for up to 5.5 hours of uninterrupted sleep, the schedule in solitary confinement allows just three.
“As a result of this significant sleep deprivation and sleep disruption, and the resulting emotional and cognitive impairment, 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,” Huang wrote in the complaint. Consequently, “prisoners suffer disciplinary and punitive consequences with ensuing additional deprivations.”
Huang’s is the second class action filed in a little over a week alleging mistreatment of inmates in Alameda County jails.
On Dec. 21, inmates at both Santa Rita and Alameda County’s Glen Dyer Detention Facility in Oakland accused jail officials of holding inmates with psychiatric conditions in isolation in small, filthy cells for 23 or 24 hours per day with little or no mental health treatment.
The practice has resulted in 33 inmate deaths over the last five years, including 13 inmates who died by suicide, according to lead plaintiff Ashok Babu.
Inmates who are suicidal, Babu claims, are placed in “safety cells,” where they are stripped naked and given only a smock to wear. The cells contain no furniture and only a hole in the ground for use as a toilet, forcing inmates to sleep and eat where they urinate and defecate.
Though confining inmates in safety cells for longer than 72 hours is prohibited, Babu claims they have been locked in the cells for a week or more at a time. Conditions in the cells are so bad that inmates have stopped reporting suicidal feelings to staff to avoid being confined to them, he says.
Ernie Galvan, Babu’s attorney with Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld, blamed the safety cells for the worsening mental health of inmates in a phone interview Monday.
“[W]e have people who start out with symptoms of anxiety and depression, and when you lock them down, those symptoms are exacerbated, and people who are anxious and depressed become more anxious and depressed and often become suicidal and attempt self-harm,” Galvan said. “Certainly we’ve seen examples of people attempt suicide after being locked down a long time.”
Both lawsuits seek court orders banning the challenged practices as unconstitutional.
“There is plenty of evidence around the country…that moving away from segregation improves conditions in jails,” Galvan said. “[C]ounty policymakers have plenty of [other] models to follow.”