U.S. District Judge James Donato ordered jail officials this past March to adjust the nighttime schedule to allow inmates to get more sleep by dispensing with late-night pill calls and breakfast served as early as 4:00 a.m. Janitors also no longer clean or perform maintenance after 11 p.m.
“The county did embrace all the changes I made in the injunction. I don’t have any indication that they’re going to revert to pre-injunction practices. Victory has been achieved, to put it boldly, what else is left?” Donato asked.
Attorney Yolanda Huang said guards are still waking inmates with disruptive security checks, going into cells and shining bright lights in their eyes.
“It is the noise, the banging, the continued conduct that some of the deputies require the prisoners to wake up to indicate they are alive. That’s where we have additional sleep disruption,” she told Donato.
Three incarcerated women, Tikisha Upshaw, Tyreka Stewart and Andrea Hernandez, sued Alameda County, the sheriff’s department, Sheriff Greg Ahern and a host of officers in 2018. All are pretrial detainees and claim they are physically and mentally harmed by continual sleep deprivation, which Donato acknowledged in his injunction.
Upshaw has been locked up for 30 months while awaiting trial in a multidefendant, multicount criminal case. “Issues concerning sleep deprivation continue. Lights out only refers to the main common area lights. Even with lights out, every cell is lit at night,” she said in a declaration filed with the court.”
She said the prisoners attempt to cover up the lights in their cells, which incurs punishment and loss of privileges. While deputies no longer yell inmates’ names to wake them up, they still shine flashlights at prisoners.
“I am getting more sleep since this court’s order, but the maximum period of nighttime sleep is only six hours and I generally am awakened at least once a night, which is better than the two or three times a night previously. I still feel very tired. The mental confusion I felt when we first filed the motion is still here,” Upshaw said.
Greg Thomas, a private attorney with the Oakland-based firm Burke, Williams & Sorensen LLP representing the county and sheriff’s department, said officers need to be able to do thorough checks on inmates to make sure they’re still breathing.
“You need some level of light so deputies can see the inmate,” he said. “Many inmates put a pillow over their head or a blanket so deputies cannot see them. So sometimes they need to shine a light.”
Thomas said jail officials were also concerned about security. “There have been escapes,” he said.
“From Alameda county jails?” Donato asked.
“In the past,” he said. “Think of ‘Birdman of Alcatraz.’”
He added: “Agencies get sued throughout the state for not doing security checks thoroughly enough.”
Donato said he would allow Huang to commence discovery by collecting blood samples from inmates and performing physical exams to determine how sleep deprivation has affected them physically.
“I know enough to be interested to see, and will leave it at that, how a single blood test or physical exam is going to establish anything that is relevant to the issue of sleep deprivation,” he said.
But he said he would prefer the parties meet and work out a plan regarding the lights and noise. “Maybe we should be focusing more on that and not the physical injury part,” he said, adding he would defer ruling on the motion for class certification.
After the hearing, Huang said the injunction has helped improve conditions somewhat, but not nearly enough.
“The county agrees to make these changes, but the situation doesn’t feel better,” she said. “At the apex, the sheriff views everyone in jail as a criminal who deserves everything done to them.”
But she added that Donato is a “pragmatist” and is interested in a solution that doesn’t involve a trial. “When a judge says go to mediation, you don’t say no,” she said.
Huang said the culture within the jail must change for the injunction to be of any use. “I don’t feel any of the training has been effective. A lot of deference has been given to the guards. How do you set up an environment where guards are more humane?”
While Donato will not dismiss the case against the county and sheriff’s department, Ahern and the individual officers have immunity.