The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is clearly panicked at the prospect of prisoner hunger strikes and possible work stoppages this summer, and is already retaliating against prisoners’ organizing for basic human rights. As an attorney who works with California prisoners explained a few days ago:
Starting this week, correctional officers in the Security Housing Units at Pelican Bay State Prison have begun prisoner checks every half hour, 24 hours a day. Until now, the checks had occurred about once every three or four hours. This is an unprecedented escalation of prisoner checks, which is causing both prisoners and correctional officers extreme stress. Sleep deprivation was already a serious problem for SHU prisoners. They already rarely sleep well, with all the “normal” interruptions every 3 hours, with guards opening and clanging shut the doors and yelling at other guards when they do their rounds day and night. This information comes to us from attorneys who conducted interviews with SHU prisoners on Tuesday and Wednesday. Those attorneys report that they were told about the frequent checks from prisoners and that correctional officers confirmed them. The attorneys were told by prison staff that the checks were ordered by CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard through the Office of Correctional Safety, and that the checks are to continue 24/7 until ordered to stop.
These checks are also disturbing to the officers. It disrupts their normal schedule and speeds up their days in ways that cause them to get angry and tense. Reportedly, the officers are in contact with their union about this speed-up.
The speed-ups have been confirmed by CDCR to one legislative aide, who contacted CDCR yesterday. It was described as a revised administrative segregation welfare check procedure to limit self-harm. While a 30 minute check may be appropriate for prisoners on “suicide watch,” it is wholly inappropriate for the approximately 1100 prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU who are not on “suicide watch.” Over 500 of these prisoners have been in solitary confinement in the SHU for more than ten years. They have been placed in these solitary confinement cells based on an administrative decision by CDCR that they are affiliated with a prison gang, and not because of mental instability or the violation of a prison rule.
This practice serves no legitimate penological interest and has the potential for grave harm to prisoners and staff alike, in terms of mental suffering, stress and conflict.
Sleep deprivation is a tried and tested form of torture, utilized in prisons around the world in an attempt to break the will of prisoners to resist. Indeed, according to one anti-torture expert, “It is such a standard form of torture that basically everybody has used it at one time or another.”
As explained on the website of The Justice Campaign, which supports Guantanamo prisoner David Hicks:
Sleep deprivation is used by torturers because it makes a person more suggestible, reduces psychological resistance and it reduces the body’s capacity to resist pain. Sleep deprivation is a very effective torture technique. The Committee against Torture (CAT) has noted that sleep deprivation used for prolonged periods constitutes a breach of the CAT, and is primarily used to break down the will of the detainee. Sleep deprivation can cause impaired memory and cognitive functioning, decreased short term memory, speech impairment, hallucinations, psychosis, lowered immunity, headaches, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, stress, anxiety and depression. For more information, see Gretchen Borchelt, JD & Christian Pross, MD ‘Systematic Use of Psychological Torture by US Forces’, Torture, vol.15(1), 2005; and ‘Broken Laws, Broken Lives: Medical Evidence of Torture by U.S. Personnel and its Impact’.
In 2011, at one point over 12,000 prisoners were on hunger strike in a struggle to put an end to conditions of isolation torture – long-term solitary confinement – in the California prison system. Their protest was only called off following assurances by CDCR that there would be reforms addressing all of their concerns. However, in 2012 it became clear that CDCR’s “reforms” were in fact designed to make the situation worse, doing nothing to dismantle the long-term isolation SHUs, and in fact adopting new terminology (“Security Threat Group”, “step-down”) which could serve to send even more people into these tombs. As such, prisoner representatives in Pelican Bay’s short corridor have announced their intention to resume a hunger strike, and have urged prisoners across the united states to join in, and to even escalate to the level of a work stoppage.
This is the context, and the reason, behind this new form of torture – sleep deprivation – being mandated by CDCR.
Concerned people can contact Secretary Beard to ask about this new policy, express concern and seek its reversal. CDCR’s Sacramento phone number is: (916) 445-7682: press “zero” to speak to an attendant. Or call CDCR director Jeffrey Beard: 916-323-6001.