California Inmates File Suit Over Sleep Deprivation

Every 30 minutes guards must slam their metal wands against a door pad outside each cell to log that a welfare check has been completed.

Guards patrol the halls in the Adjustment Center at San Quentin State Prison’s death row, Aug. 16, 2016. (Jessica Christian)

Prison conditions are not known to be comfortable — some would say that’s the point — but what’s the line between institutional living and mental and physical health? That’s the question raised by two separate lawsuits recently filed by California inmates, who claim that nightly welfare checks by guards have contributed to sleep deprivation and “unconstitutionally cruel punishment.” 

Christopher Lipsey, an inmate housed at the California State Prison in Corcoran, and Maher Suarez, who’s locked up in Solano, are behind the suits. Both are in SHUs — Secure Housing Units — which mean that prison guards carry out welfare and suicide checks every 30 minutes for the 22 hours per day that the prisoners are kept in their cells. 

The checks have been required statewide since a class action lawsuit was filed in 1990. To streamline efforts, guards must strike a metal wand on an electric pad outside the door of each cell once they’ve completed a check. The device then logs that the check happened. 

U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria is presiding over the suits and will make a decision in the coming days to either dismiss both based on the 1990 law or transfer them to federal court in Sacramento, where a related case is being handled.

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