California’s top prison official defends new 30-minute ‘welfare checks’ instituted one month before start of hunger strike

CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard

California’s top prison official defended the new around-the-clock “welfare checks” on inmates held in solitary confinement, claiming the practice is necessary to address the “disproportionately high” suicide rate in segregated units.

The new policy was sanctioned by Jeffrey Beard, who was appointed Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation by Gov. Jerry Brown.

At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Rules Committee on June 19th, Beard explained that CDCR has stepped up the frequency of welfare checks on inmates held in isolation after 8 of the 12 suicides in the past 6 months took place in Security Housing Units.

Read more: Solitary Confinement in California

“We need to put more of an effort there and that’s what we’re doing, and I’m very hopeful that as we move forward that we will see the [inmate suicide] numbers come down totally and in the segregation units as well,” said Beard.

According to a CDCR memorandum dated May 28th and signed by Kathleen Dickinson, Director of the Division of Adult Institutions, and Timothy Belavich, Director of the Division of Health Care Services, prison staff are ordered to conduct “three welfare checks per hour at staggered intervals not to exceed 30 minutes” on prisoners held in segregation units. The directive noted that the welfare checks are “most effective when staggered and unpredictable to the subject inmate population.”

Although in the past the welfare checks were performed during the first 21 days of an inmate’s placement in isolation, the memo stated that staff “may continue welfare checks beyond the 21 days on specific ASU inmates when deemed clinically indicated.”

“Since implementation, custody staff completing the ASU [administrative segregation units] Welfare Check process have interrupted many inmate suicide attempts, subsequently saving the lives of the involved inmates,” according to the CDCR memo.

However, prisoner rights advocates have decried the 30-minute around-the-clock welfare checks, saying that inmates held in Security Housing Units are being subjected to chronic sleep deprivation as a result.

Read more: Pelican Bay solitary confinement inmates threaten to resume hunger strike in July

The advocates also questioned the timing of the new policy, which began in early June – just a month before prisoners at Pelican Bay are expected to go on a hunger strike to protest the conditions in segregated units and California’s use of long-term solitary confinement.

“We’ve [learned of] some disturbing changes in policy and actions of custodial staff in at least three prisons where hunger strikes have occurred and are being rumored again, and our understanding is that these new policies have been sanctioned at least in part by [Beard's] office,” said a representative from Legal Services for Prisoners with Children during Beard’s confirmation hearing. “[The] changed policy…allows guards [to] wake prisoners in the SHU at Pelican Bay every 30 minutes under the guise of the welfare check…These are reportedly being these are reportedly being done exactly every 30 minutes. So two times within an hour around the clock these prisoners have been awakened, and prisoners in the SHU have characterized it as harassment.”

Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and an expert on the mental health impacts of prolonged solitary confinement, stressed that chronic sleep deprivation is a form of torture.

“Sleep deprivation has many significant psychological consequences including irritability and impairment of the ability to make rational decisions,” says Kupers told Prisoner Hunger Strike Solitary. “Because of the harm it causes, sleep deprivation has been described as torture by organizations such as Amnesty International.”

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