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Monday, April 15, 2024 | Back issues
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Judge Orders Jailers to Let Female Inmates Sleep

A federal judge on Wednesday ordered Alameda County jail officials to stop depriving female jail inmates of their constitutional right to sleep, but told attorneys to hammer out the details of a final order on their own.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge on Wednesday ordered Alameda County jail officials to stop depriving female jail inmates of their constitutional right to sleep, but told attorneys to hammer out the details of a final order on their own.

In issuing a preliminary injunction, U.S. District Judge James Donato in San Francisco ordered officials to modify the nighttime schedule at Santa Rita Jail to minimize the number of times female inmates are wakened each night, specifically by doing away with early-morning medication calls and breakfast service which he said likely violate the Fourteenth Amendment.

"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 in an 8-page order. "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. And when the state takes a person into custody for any reason, the Constitution imposes a duty to provide for the detainee’s basic human needs."

Donato said the plaintiffs – a class of female inmates housed at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, about 40 miles east of San Francisco – had shown they would be "irreparably harmed" absent an injunction and would likely prevail on at least part of their Fourteenth Amendment claim. But he ordered the parties to negotiate the scope of the injunction so that it complies with the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) and to submit a proposed order for his review by April 11.

Passed by Congress in 1995, the Prison Litigation Reform Act requires preliminary injunctions involving prison conditions be "narrowly drawn, extend no further than necessary to correct the harm the court finds requires preliminary relief, and be the least intrusive means necessary to correct that harm."

Based on this, Donato said Wednesday "the best approach to fashioning a remedy is for the parties to meet and confer on a form of injunction that is consistent with the PLRA and meets defendants’ operational needs, while ensuring a reasonable amount of sleeping time for detainees in a manner consistent with this order."

He added: "To be clear, this is not an opportunity to re-argue the injunction or submit new evidence or declarations. This is intended to be a practical effort to draft a properly tailored injunction."

In an email, class counsel Yolanda Huang said her clients were "pleased with Judge Donato's order, particularly with Judge Donato's acknowledgement and confirmation that 'sleep is critical to human existence,' and that the jail has a constitutional obligation to provide for the women prisoners' basic human needs."

According to a December 2018 class action filed by lead plaintiffs Tikisha Upshaw and Tyreka Stewart, Santa Rita guards keep the lights on in inmates’ cells and jail 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 wake them; wake them at 2:30 a.m. to take medication and again at 4 a.m. for breakfast; 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 up to 5.5 hours.

Upshaw has been incarcerated at Santa Rita for two years awaiting trial on murder charges, 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.

On Wednesday, Donato rejected Alameda County's argument the early medication and breakfast calls are necessary for managing inmates' medical needs and ensuring they appear on time for their morning court hearings. He noted county officials had presented no evidence they are medically necessary or "good practice," and rejected the county's assertion the 2:30 a.m. call time is reasonable because some medications must be taken before breakfast as "untenable bootstrapping."

"These are certainly legitimate goals," Donato wrote. "No one can argue with the proposition that detainees with medical needs should get their prescriptions, but why at 2:30 a.m.?"

Donanto did, however, say the jail's cell-check policy and other challenged policies were a closer call. Santa Rita's cell-check policy appears "consistent with safety standards mandated for local detention facilities by California state regulations," he said, and jail officials appear to have implemented measures to minimize the intrusiveness of the checks, including by shining flashlights indirectly into cells.

"Plaintiffs challenge the extent to which these techniques are actually used, but the record is at best sharply conflicted on the facts, and the court cannot say that plaintiffs have carried their burden for a preliminary injunction at this time," he wrote of the challenged policies.

As for what she and her co-counsel Dennis Cunningham might ask for in their negotiations with the county, Huang didn't specify. But she said they "look forward to working with the Alameda County sheriff to fashion a preliminary injunction where a prisoner's basic human needs is acknowledged and accommodated by jail guards and not disregarded or subordinated by jail operations simply because it is more convenient for the jail to do so."

Alameda County and its sheriff's department are represented by Gregory Thomas of Burke, Williams & Sorensen in Oakland, who did not immediately return a request for comment Wednesday.

Categories / Civil Rights, Government, Regional

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