At a hearing Thursday, February 28, 2019, to determine whether two female inmates will get a jury trial for alleged maltreatment in custody, a federal court judge expressed “profound skepticism” about nighttime activity at the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin in Alameda County. According to a story on newslaw.com, U.S. District Judge James Donato rejected the county’s arguments that waking prisoners at 3 a.m. to take medication was “medically necessary” and that its 4 a.m. breakfast call was meant to ensure prisoners made their “8:30 a.m. court appearances on time.”
Since 2017, prisoners have made appearances at the new county courthouse across the street. The hearing was the result of “a December 2018 class action complaint filed by lead plaintiffs Tikisha Upshaw and Tyreka Stewart,” both of whom were pretrial detainees. The complaint alleges that “Santa Rita guards keep the lights on in inmates’ cells and in the jail’s 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 awaken them; 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.”
As a result, the complaint alleges, prisoners get only about one or two hours of uninterrupted sleep per night. The named plaintiffs claim that “lack of sleep has impaired their ability to think and to concentrate,” which has made it “difficult to help their attorneys prepare their defenses.” Plaintiff Upshaw also says that she’s “been getting sick more often due to sleep deprivation.” Her attorney, Yolanda Huang told reporters after Thursday’s hearing that “Upshaw has been [in Santa Rita] 700-plus days and she has not slept through the night for 700-plus days.” She asked the press to imagine the toll from sleep deprivation over almost a two-year period. Upshaw and Stewart are requesting a jury trial and are seeking an injunction barring various practices that have caused sleep deprivation, as well as compensatory and punitive damages. This is not the only prisoner suit pending for Santa Rita.
A separate class action was filed in January 2018 “by three women who were pregnant while incarcerated at Santa Rita.” The complaint alleges a “pattern and practice of aggressively misogynist, apparently programmatic, maltreatment of women prisoners.” The maltreatment allegedly included being “held in isolation cells, kept outdoors without warm clothing and strip-searched for drugs, and denied medical care and medication, warm clothing, blankets, healthy and sufficient food, and fresh air despite their pregnancies.” As a result of maltreatment, two of the women suffered miscarriages, and a third gave birth alone and unattended in solitary confinement.
Federal judges in California have a history of siding with prisoners against their jailers. Perhaps the most famous ruling came in 2009, when a panel of three judges ruled that to relieve prison overcrowding, California would have to release 46,000 prisoners within two years. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia called it “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history.” However, if the facts as alleged in this case are true, they might be sufficient to radicalize the even most cautious and temperate jurist. We anxiously await Judge Donato’s ruling on whether Upshaw and Stewart shall have their jury trial.