‘Wellness check’ is Orwellian for torture

From the January-February 2016 issue of News & Letters

Chowchilla, Calif.—On May 18, 2014, Central California Prison for Women (CCWF) instituted a “wellness check” procedure. The procedure stems from class action cases, which seek to improve the conditions of confinement in California prisons. The “wellness” checks are meant to decrease suicides while in custody. A guard is supposed to check each prisoner in a vulnerable population every half hour.

The prison installed metal buttons on the metal doors of prisoners’ cells, which a guard is to touch with a metal pipe to prove a prisoner’s status has been checked. In addition the guard carries a flashlight to see into the cell. The noise from main doors opening and closing every half hour, from stomping, from banging the pipe on the doors as guards hit (or miss) the buttons, beeping, indicating that check has registered, all are further exacerbated by guards shining the flashlight into prisoners’ faces as they are trying to sleep.

A recent demonstration in San Francisco, Calif. in support of prisoners at Pelican Bay who also endure so-called "wellness checks." Photo credit: Urszula Wislanka for News & Letters.

A recent demonstration in San Francisco, Calif., in support of prisoners at Pelican Bay who also endure so-called “wellness checks.” Photo credit: Urszula Wislanka for News & Letters.

The prisoners have been deprived of sleep since the procedure began. Sleep deprivation can lead to suicidal thoughts and/or tendencies. The way the “wellness” checks have been implemented is a further torture.

The women stated in a 602 (prisoners’ complaint form) filed on June 24, 2014, after the system was instituted on CCWF’s death row: “…We’ve been in [this housing unit] for decades (since 1991) and have had no suicides… It’s not to point fingers at who’s doing the pipe wrong or loudly…because people always make errors. Some use it as a torture tactic, because we are the ‘row’ and should be woken, and/or treated badly.

“The U.S. Federal Courts have said, ‘Sleep is critical to human existence, and conditions that prevent sleep have been held to violate the Eighth Amendment…’ It causes high blood pressure, seizures, uncontrolled blood sugar levels, stress, depression, etc. … Many of us have histories of seizures. Flashing lights, banging on doors and lack of sleep have caused some of us to go into seizures, which can be hazardous.

“Some are having to raise/change meds just to cope, because of the monitoring/banging/beeping/flashlights. We’re surprised nobody’s had a heart attack yet….

“This is torture. We are being emotionally, mentally and physically battered by the security checks throughout the nights.” Signed by the 19 death row prisoners.

The complaint was accompanied by detailed records of the exact times excessively loud banging was performed, and by whom. The first-level review of the complaint found that because the policy states that the checks at night are to be performed silently, therefore they are silent, and the complaint was dismissed. Subsequently the 602 complaint form was “lost” repeatedly in the system.

As of January the “wellness” checks are still depriving women of sleep. To support them, call the warden, Deborah K. Johnson at (559)665-5531, or the public information officer Lt. Brian Davi at (559)665-6002, Brian.Davi@cdcr.ca.gov.

–Urszula Wislanka

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