SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Referring to it as a “basic necessity of life,” a federal judge hinted Thursday he might order Alameda County jail officials to stop depriving female inmates of sleep.
In a hearing in downtown San Francisco, U.S. District Judge James Donato rejected the county’s contention that waking up female inmates at Santa Rita Jail at 3 a.m. to take medication and again at 4 a.m. for breakfast is necessary.
“Very few prescriptions in my experience need to be taken at three in the morning,” Donato told Alameda County attorney Gregory Thomas, who had argued that 3 a.m. “pill calls” were medically necessary.
Thomas, who is with Burke Williams & Sorensen, also said breakfast needs to happen at 4 a.m. so inmates will make it to 8:30 a.m. court appearances on time.
Santa Rita inmates often arrived late to morning arraignments at Alameda County’s flagship courthouse in Oakland, about 27 miles west of Santa Rita’s Dublin location. But in July 2017, in-custody arraignments were moved to the new county courthouse in Dublin across the street from the jail.
“The summary that ‘we just want to make court calls’ – that’s not sufficient, because I know when courts start,” Donato told Thomas.
“What I’m trying to express to you is my profound skepticism,” the judge added.
According to a December 2018 class action complaint filed by lead plaintiffs Tikisha Upshaw and Tyreka Stewart, Santa Rita guards keep the lights on in inmates’ cells and in the jail’s corridors 24 hours a day; conduct state-mandated hourly safety checks throughout the night, with guards shining flashlights into inmates’ eyes and banging their keys on the metal cell doors to awaken them; and run new-employee training drills at night, during which heavily armed trainees dressed in SWAT uniforms enter sleeping inmates’ cells, force them to lie face-down on the floor, handcuff them, and evacuate and sequester them to other areas of the jail, including to isolation cells and the yard.
Both pretrial detainees, Upshaw and Stewart claim Santa Rita’s practices make it difficult to get more than one or two hours of uninterrupted sleep each night, even though inmates are theoretically allowed a maximum of 5.5 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night.
Upshaw has been incarcerated at Santa Rita for two years awaiting trial for murder, and Stewart for 1.5 years in connection with charges for burglary, evading arrest, and other crimes, according to court papers. Both women say lack of sleep has impaired their ability to think and to concentrate since they’ve been at Santa Rita, making it difficult to help their attorneys prepare their defenses. Upshaw also claims she has been getting sick more often due to sleep deprivation.
“Upshaw has been there 700-plus days and she has not slept through the night for 700-plus days,” plaintiff’s attorney Yolanda Huang said after Thursday’s hearing. “You can imagine what your brain is like if for 700 days in a row you only get an hour or two in a row of sleep.”
Donato opened Thursday’s hearing by indicating he might decline part of the plaintiffs’ requested relief to bar guards from shining flashlights into cells and banging on cell doors during nighttime safety checks. He said because Upshaw and Stewart didn’t complain about light, noise or sleep deprivation until two weeks before suing, it “kind of undercuts the idea of irreparable harm.”
Huang countered that “most of the women are not educated and don’t understand that this is somehow a violation of constitutional rights.” And both Huang and Dennis Cunningham, who also represents the class, said they only recently realized that sleep deprivation is contributing to the detrimental conditions at Santa Rita they’re challenging in other suits.
Sleep deprivation “is an egregious aspect of the tyrannies we are complaining about here,” Cunningham said.
A separate class action pending before Donato outlines some of those “tyrannies.” Brought by three women who were pregnant while incarcerated at Santa Rita and also represented by Huang and Cunningham, the January 2018 complaint claims Santa Rita’s “pattern and practice of aggressively misogynist, apparently programmatic, maltreatment of women prisoners” resulted in two miscarriages and in “a third woman giving birth, alone and unattended, in a solitary confinement cell.”
In that suit, lead plaintiff Jaclyn Mohrbacher claims she and two co-plaintiffs were held in isolation cells, kept outdoors without warm clothing and strip-searched for drugs, and denied medical care and medication, warm clothing, blankets, healthy and sufficient food, and fresh air despite their pregnancies.
They also claim jail officials “repeatedly demanded” they get abortions.
“We just had a miscarriage last week,” Cunningham said in court Thursday.
“She was given a pill, she didn’t know what it was, and she started bleeding an hour later,” he said. “Sleep deprivation is an aspect of it and it came to our attention just now in a welter of other stuff.”
Donato appeared to change course. He granted the Upshaw plaintiffs permission to fold their claims into the Mohrbacher suit, if they choose, so the claims can be reviewed together. In the meantime, he suggested ordering the county to revise its jail schedule so as not to awaken inmates early for medication and breakfast.
With respect to nighttime safety checks, Donato suggested a compromise: guards could keep banging on cell doors and using flashlights if they couldn’t sufficiently see inmates to determine whether they’re alive or uninjured, but inmates already visible to the guards should receive sleep masks and ear plugs to lessen the chance of being disturbed.
“The body has to sleep; I’m sold on that,” Donato said. “The issue is, I don’t see why people are poked and probed at three in the morning and again at four in the morning for breakfast.”
Outside court, Huang also questioned Santa Rita’s nighttime schedule.
“Why would you have to wake someone up at three to take their blood sugar for breakfast and why do you have to have breakfast at four? That doesn’t make sense to me,” Huang said. “It’s convenience. It has to do with their scheduling; it has to do with their shift changes. It has nothing to do with the impact on the women.”
Huang added, “That’s the reason why people in jail don’t make good choices, or why people in jail are irritable, or why people in jail fight or they lose their temper – because they’re sleep-deprived. And if you want people to get their GED, if you want them to learn to be better people, if you want to reduce the recidivism rate, it’s a no-brainer that the first thing they need to do is sleep.”