The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Sleep is critical to human existence’: Judge orders county jail to stop constantly waking up female inmates

A prison cell. A judge ordered that a jail in California must stop constantly waking its inmates. (Paul Faith/PA Wire/Press Association/AP Images)

On any night at the Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, Calif., in the wing housing female inmates, most of whom have not been convicted of a crime, lights go out at 11 p.m. But not all the lights. Those just outside the cell doors remain on, and inside most cells, the “night lights” are “bright enough to permit reading,” as one inmate put it.

Every 30 minutes, jailers must check on the women to make sure they are still alive, sometimes knocking on the bars to rouse them. At 2:30 a.m., there is a “pill call” as nurses go door to door to deliver meds.

And then at 4 a.m., it is time to eat breakfast. The lights come back on.

That’s the non-sleep schedule that a federal judge in San Francisco on Wednesday found likely to be an unconstitutional deprivation of basic needs, in violation of the 14th Amendment’s right to due process. In his preliminary injunction order, U.S. District Judge James Donato questioned how handing out medication “in the dead of night” and eating breakfast at 4 a.m. served any legitimate purpose. Sleep, Donato wrote, "‘is critical to human existence.’” Sleep deprivation has already been found to be cruel and unusual punishment for those duly convicted of crimes, Donato noted. The plaintiffs, the judge stressed, have not even had their day in court.

He ordered the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office to fashion a new night schedule that stopped needlessly disrupting the women’s REM cycles.

“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 wrote. “Conditions of confinement that deprive detainees of those needs or ‘the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities’ violate the Constitution.” And the defendants, Donato added, “do not dispute that ‘sleep undoubtedly counts as one of life’s basic needs.’ ”

The women leading the class-action lawsuit say the disruptions can lead to as little as two or three hours of uninterrupted sleep per night. One plaintiff described the frequent interruptions as being “like torture.”

“There are days when I can barely stay awake during the day time,” wrote one pretrial inmate, Tikisha Upshaw.

If they try to avert their eyes from the light by covering their head with a blanket or by covering the light, the jailers either bang on their cells so they remove the blanket or will write them up for a disciplinary violation, the inmates said. Then, there’s the constant nighttime background noise: vacuuming, maintenance, announcements on the intercom, doors slamming. They accused the jailers of shining flashlights directly in their faces during the half-hour checks — which the jailers disputed — and of regularly banging on the cells to wake them.

Perhaps most disruptive, every time there is a new hire, the guard trains during the graveyard shift, according to the lawsuit — meaning sometimes deputies in full SWAT gear storm the women’s cells and cuff them on the floor before escorting them outside. Those exercises are for practice, according to the suit.

But what really made Donato bristle were the nightly 2:30 a.m. “pill calls” and 4 a.m. breakfast time. What, exactly, was the point? he questioned.

The sheriff’s office explained that the timing was necessary because some medication needs to be taken before breakfast. Breakfast is early, the sheriff’s office said, because some inmates need to get ready for court hearings. But Donato still seemed puzzled as to why it was so early.

“No one can argue with the proposition that detainees with medical needs should get their prescriptions, but why at 2:30 a.m.?” he wrote. “Defendants do not say, and they have not proffered any declarations or other evidence from healthcare professionals indicating that a 2:30 a.m. delivery time is a medical necessity or even a good practice.”

Further, Donato wrote, the sheriff’s office has offered “nothing” to explain why inmates need to eat breakfast at 4 a.m. to get to court on time.

“These are certainly legitimate goals,” he wrote, “but defendants have not shown that the near-constant disruptions during the five hours of lights-out time are reasonably related to those purposes.”

Donato acknowledged that the 30-minute welfare checks were more essential, finding that the sheriff’s office did take steps to minimize the disruptions, although the plaintiffs still dispute this. The disagreements will be sorted out as the case moves forward.

After months of sleep deprivation, the women said, they have caught themselves failing to remember basic facts about their cases, such as dates and names and faces. “I cannot problem solve,” Upshaw wrote. “I can’t remember things people have told me.”

All she was asking, she wrote, was “for the opportunity to get enough sleep to be alert for my trial.”

More from Morning Mix:

Chicago cops were looking for drugs. Instead, they raided a 4-year-old’s birthday party, a family says.

‘Weather’s going to be turnt, right?’: A news team’s experiment in teen slang left viewers ‘cringing’

‘Think of the mothers of sons’: Notre Dame mom begs female students to stop wearing leggings, sparking protests