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California inmates sue over sleep deprivation

On any night at the Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, Calif., in the wing housing female prisoners, most of whom have not yet 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 prisoner put it.

Every 30 minutes, jailers must check on the prisoners 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 the meds. And then at 4 a.m., it is time to eat breakfast. The lights come back on.


That’s the nonsleep schedule that 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, US District Judge James Donato questioned how handing out medication ‘‘in the dead of night’’ and eating breakfast at 4 a.m. actually served any legitimate purpose. Sleep, Donato wrote, ‘‘’is critical to human existence.’’’

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

The women leading a class-action lawsuit against the jail say the disruptions can lead to as little as two or three hours of sleep per night. Donato acknowledged that the 30-minute welfare checks were essential, finding that the sheriff’s office did take steps to minimize the disruptions, although the plaintiffs dispute this. The disagreements will be sorted out as the case moves forward.