Welfare Checks: Promoting Prisoner Well-Being or the Latest Form of Harrassment and Retaliation?

Taeva Shefler

Prison Focus Issue 47
Special Fall Edition 2015

Correspondents at Pelican Bay State Prison SHU report that as of August 1, guards have implemented “welfare checks,” occurring every thirty minutes, or forty-eight times per day. Guards are conducting the checks in an aggressive manner, routinely banging the metal wand against doors, stomping through the corridors, slamming doors, and shining lights in prisoners’ eyes while they are trying to sleep. Given the reverberation of noise throughout the concrete and steel pods, this results in virtually non-stop disturbance throughout the cell.

As a result of the Coleman settlement regarding the treatment of mentally ill and developmentally disabled prisoners, CDCR was ordered to conduct “welfare checks” on prisoners in regular intervals. It was left up to the Department to design a system for implementation of these checks. CDC implemented a system with electronic wands which the guards must connect to a metal button by each cell. The wands beep with every connection, and due to the concrete and steel design of the SHU pods, each sound reverberates loudly throughout the pod, as well as in adjoining pods.

Although it is possible to conduct these checks quietly, and that the beeping should be turned off turning the night, guards are showing no awareness or respect for how much noise they are creating while making rounds. Many are convinced that the guards are using these checks as a method to harass prisoners and disrupt their sleep, as well as an excuse to disrupt programming throughout the day.

Sleep deprivation and relentless exposure to loud noise are known methods of torture. Some prisoners are considering going on hunger strike again as a method to combat CDCR’s latest tactics. As one prisoner wrote in a letter to Jeffrey Beard, Secretary of CDCR, "Deprivation of sleep is a common form of torture and has no place in a civilized society. Sleep is a basic human need and a fundamental constitutional right and I shouldn't have to be starving myself so I and my fellow prisoners can get some sleep."

In addition to the disruption of the checks themselves, guards have used the implementation of this system – required in numerous CDCR facilities – as an excuse to disrupt what little programming exists at the SHU. Reports include that food services are running hours late, showers are not provided at regular pace (usually they can do 3 or 4 showers in an hour, but now they are saying that showers are taking over an hour each), and that yard time is not starting until after 9am some days, when yard time must start at 7 or 7:15am each day in order to ensure that everyone will get yard time that day. In August, lawyer representatives for CPF who came to visit Pelican Bay were denied visits to nearly half of those on their approved visit list, told only that there was no way the guards would be moving one person per hour for the visits, which had been scheduled weeks in advance. The rationale for all of these delays is that guards are simply unable to keep schedule with the new responsibilities of the welfare checks.

We have heard reports of these checks presenting a severe nuisance and disturbance from other SHUs as well as Pelican Bay, including Corcoran and Tehachapi. In the other SHUs throughout the state, reports have been consistent for over a year that while it was possible to conduct the checks quietly, particular guards would be extremely noisy, and that the consequent sleep deprivation was creating agitation and high levels of anxiety throughout the SHU pods. Conversations between individuals, already challenging, are dampered because people must try to get sleep whenever they can. A perverse outcome given the name and nature of these checks, those with mental health issues report exacerbated symptoms due to the levels of anxiety they are experiencing.

In all of the SHUs, including Corcoran, Tehachapi, and Pelican Bay, guards have encouraged people inside to file 602 forms complaining about the practice in hopes that Sacramento will stop the program and they will not have to do the work involved. In October of 2014, a group of individuals at Corcoran filed a group 602 on this issue, based on the fact that checks are not effective. On the outside, the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition has taken action and encouraged its network to write letters to Warden Ducat at Pelican Bay and is in dialogue with Coleman attorneys, who are aware of the distress resulting from the checks.

The following is a letter to CDCR officials from Michael Bien, one of the lead counsel on the Coleman case, explaining why the current situation is not an acceptable implementation of the court’s orders in Coleman.

Letter from Michael Bien:
We write to raise very serious and emergent concerns regarding the recent implementation of the Guard One system in the Pelican Bay State Prison SHU. We received correspondence today indicating that at least one prisoner is on an active hunger strike and that a group hunger strike is planned. The Warden at PBSP must assert control over custody staff in the SHU and their efforts to undermine the implementation of this CDCR policy.

We have received multiple credible reports from multiple prisoners that custody officers in the SHU are intentionally awakening each and every prisoner in the SHU every 30 minutes through not only aggressive use of the Guard One wand system and excessive stomping/key jingling noise throughout the rounding, but also by repeatedly slamming the door to the Pod, and shining their flashlights into every prisoner’s eyes. We have also received several credible reports that multiple prisoners have required medical attention due to the resulting effects of sleep deprivation and that many others are experiencing severe psychological distress. As you know, CDCR has experienced resistance to the implementation of welfare checks and Guard One in other prisons and segregation units, which appears to have been successfully addressed by supervisors at those locations, including death row.

PBSP either lacks adequate custody staffing or as part of the job action, they are so contending that they are unable to carry out the rounding requirement while maintaining basic regular programs in the SHU. We are reliably informed that yard time, canteen, mail, and shower opportunities have been severely curtailed since the implementation of Guard One, and that prisoners are being told this is due to the lack of staff available for any activities other than the completion of welfare checks. We are also informed that access to basic hygiene supplies (shavers) and to clean laundry has been interrupted due to the alleged shortages in staffing resulting from Guard One implementation. We ask that you urgently review the impact that the Guard One implementation has had on the regular PBSP program and that any necessary staffing adjustments be made immediately. Correctional officers have made clear that they are forced to restrict these other activities on the Unit as a result of Coleman requiring them to do Guard One rounds. Other forms of retaliation have been a new policy to restrict ventilation on the unit by closing the door to the yard.

Finally, we ask that the apparent campaign of misinformation on the part of PBSP’s custody staff immediately end. We have received multiple and consistent reports that custody staff is telling prisoners that Coleman counsel are specifically responsible for the implementation of the Guard One system in the PBSP SHU and for the harms that prisoners in the SHU are experiencing as a result of the misuse of the system, and that their complaints about the system can only be addressed by us and not through the normal grievance process. Encouraging prisoners to write to us rather than to use CDCR’s grievance process reduces command staff’s and headquarters’ access to information about conditions in the SHU and hinders your ability to monitor and correct these serious concerns. We will, of course, respond to inmate correspondence, but we continue to encourage prisoners to use 602’s and medical grievances to complain about the deprivations they are suffering in the sHU.

As you are well aware, Guard One was CDCR’s chosen method to implement a long-standing requirement of regular welfare checks in CDCR’s segregation system. We certainly did not ask for, and we most strongly object to, the retaliatory and dangerous manner in which PBSP staff have chosen to implement this valuable tool in the SHU.

Thank you for your immediate attention to what appears to be an increasingly dangerous situation. Conditions in the SHU, even when it operates routinely, are very difficult for human beings to tolerate. Whether or not the conditions cause permanent harm will be decided by the Ashker court. CDCR has now substantially worsened conditions in the SHU by its mismanagement of the implementation of Guard One.

-Michael Bien, Attorney