If you want a good night’s sleep in Texas, don’t look for it in prison. Finding respite from the constant noise and bright lights in cell blocks and dormitories is increasingly difficult in general population. In special housing areas (Administrative Segregation), it may be impossible.
Despite conservative, tough-on-crime mythology perpetuating the misconception that prisons are like gated country clubs, life behind bars is synonymous to a fenced and caged dystopia.
Nearly one-third of every day in prison is spent being counted. Ideally, all counts are supposed to clear in an hour.
At the Hughes Unit, near Gatesville, Texas, corrections officers work 12 hour shifts, four days on, four days off. The day shift, called “One Card,” begins at 6:00 AM. The “bosses,” as they are still called, immediately begin their first count. All the lights in living quarters and day rooms are turned on and remain so until count clears, by 7:00 AM (if everything goes right). Various job assignments, lay-ins, recreation, and other functions are called out and then two hours later, the second count starts at 9:00 AM, and is supposed to clear by 10:00 AM. Once cleared, security begins calling each building for lunch. It’s “chow time!”
The next count is scheduled from 2:00 PM until 3:00 PM, followed by dinner. By the time another meal has been served, the second shift relieves the first.
“Two Card” holds its first count from 6:00 PM to 7:00 PM, it’s second from 10:00 PM to 11:00 PM, immediately followed by a special Bed Book Count, which begins at 11:00 PM and lasts as long as it takes COs in every living area to wake up every prisoner who might be asleep. It’s the TDCJ (Texas Department of Criminal Justice) protocol designed to ensure that everyone is in the right bunk, in the right cell or cubicle, and that no one, in fact, has absconded or expired. Following that count, yet another occurs between 1:00 AM and 2:00 AM, and once clear, Two Card bosses begin braying “Chow Time,” “Insulin,” and “Pill Window,” for those so inclined to seek sustenance or succor.
All things considered, the ideal clockwork precision for counts in Texas Prisons falls far and away from realization. More often than not, do-overs are required. One hears the lamentable cry: “Recount! Catch your bunk!” frequently, each and every day. Scheduled one-hour periods of accountability deviate into longer, more stressful epochs which tend to undermine the whole notion of a Master Plan, and one wonders if our keepers can’t do simple arithmetic with reliability or accuracy, then just how effective are the rest of their efforts?
It’s enough to make you sick.
Not having enough sleep is called sleep deprivation, and we’ve all experienced that at one time or another. It can be either acute (short-lived) or chronic (long-lived).
Long-term sleep restriction causes fatigue, daytime sleepiness, clumsiness, and either weight gain or weight loss.
Lack of sleep adversely affects the brain and its cognitive functions. Long term total sleep deprivations in lab animals will kill them. Other physiological affects include aching muscles, memory lapses or loss, confusion, depression, hallucinations, headaches, hand tremors, malaise, stye, hypertension, increased levels of stress hormones, increased risk of type II diabetes, increased risk of fibromyalgia, increased irritability, increased risk of obesity, nystagmus (rapid involuntary eye movement), seizures, severe yawning, mania, symptoms similar to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), psychosis, impaired immune system, increased risk of heart disease, increased heart rate variability, decreased temperature, impaired moral judgement, and decreased reaction time and accuracy.
These are symptoms familiar to those who experience them and to health care providers who treat the symptoms but are powerless to confront the cause of such complaints in prison.
Administrators in the institutional division of TDCJ routinely ignore and belittle prisoner complaints regarding sleep deprivation driven by both traditional and current policy which results in the disruption and deprivation of prisoners’ sleep.
In a recent good faith attempt to address the issue, Hughes Unit prisoners sought resolution through the grievance system. Step I (I-127) forms requested relief in the form of the administration (unit wardens) honoring and enforcing existing policy that regulates lighting during the count times in a manner that minimizes sleep-pattern interruption. This policy states:
“Dayroom lights in 18 and 19 dorm will not be utilized during daylight hours. For count purposes, the only lighting needed is fluorescent lighting. The dayroom light switches are clearly marked on the picket control panel as “Dayroom Lights.” The fluorescent lighting is marked on the control panel as switches ‘L’ and ‘H.’ The ‘L’ switch controls intermittent lighting on one and two rows above the cubicles. These are the only lights used for count purposes. The ‘H’ switch controls all fluorescent lighting over the cubicle area. This switch should only be utilized for situations in which more lighting is needed for cell searches or disruptive situations. These lights will immediately be turned off when no longer needed. The Shift Sergeants will ensure that the lighting procedures are being strictly adhered to.”
This mandate was signed by Bruce Armstrong, who was then the Hughes Unit Building Major. It has not been revised in 13 years. Mr. Armstrong is now Assistant Director of Region VI.
In his reply to the numerous grievances filed about this policy being ignored, Asst. Warden Brian Blanchard replied:
“Staff may use all necessary lighting during count procedures to ensure an accurate count. Lights are turned off upon the completion of count. No action warranted.”(13)
It’s as if he has never read unit policy, or if he has, he simply doesn’t care.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, the average adult needs about seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Without that much, researchers say we begin to undergo genetic changes which can impact overall health in very negative ways.
Dr. Charles Czeisler, M.D., is a tenured professor at Harvard Medical School. He’s the go-to expert for professional sports in every major league, as well as for NASA and the U.S. Secret Service. Czeisler offers the same generally accepted advice to everyone. Get seven to nine hours of sleep every night.
Is it unreasonable to expect justice from inside prison? With as much sleep deprivation research data available today, a state agency responsible for the care and custody of over one hundred thousand men and women behind bars should do everything it can to ensure that its policies and practices align with a goal of preventing or avoiding harm.
It’s a given that society demands punishment of and recompense from those who have acted irresponsibly, broken the law or victimized others through violence. Those in prison get it. Basic human needs like sufficient sleep cannot be purposely denied or deprived by policy. When that occurs the result is, according to the European Court of Human Rights, “… a practice of inhuman and degrading treatment,” in breach of the European convention on Human Rights. According to Nicole Bieske, speaking for Amnesty International (Australia) “…sleep deprivation is cruel, inhumane and degrading. If used for prolonged periods of time, it is torture.”
A significant percentage of Texas prisoners have serious psychological and psychiatric disabilities. Prisons have become dumping grounds and human warehouses for these unfortunate humans. The American Psychiatric Association states that causal relationships between sleep loss and effects of psychiatric disorders have been most extensively studied in patients with mood disorders. Shifts into mania in bipolar patients are often preceded by episodes of insomnia, and sleep deprivation has been shown to induce a manic state in susceptible individuals. Sleep deprivation may represent a final common pathway in the genesis of mania, and sleep loss as both a precipitating and reinforcing factor for the manic state.
Sometimes when I’m on my way to work before dawn, the bosses in the control picket lay sprawled on the floor or bent over the desk, their heads cradled in their arms. Like the rest of us here, they’re exhausted. When their shift changes, they’ll rouse themselves and, unlike me, drive home where they can get their rest.
I’m always tempted to beat on the glass, to shout insults and invectives imbued with rancorous profanity. If I can’t get my rest, why should they?
But I just can’t. I let them make it. They look so peaceful there.
Post script: Since writing “To Sleep, Perchance to Dream” in 2014, Asst. Warden Brian Blanchard has taken early retirement. He was replaced by Bruce Armstrong. Both TDCJ-ID policy and unit practice, however, remains unchanged.
Philip Brasfield – 9 August 2015
Philip Brasfield writes about the prison system in Texas from the inside out. 2015 marks his 38th year behind the wire.
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep
- Sleep Deprivation
- Normal Sleep, Sleep Physiology & Deprivation by M. Susan Stevens, MD
- The Effects of 53 Hours of Sleep Deprivation on Moral Judgement, Journal SLEEP, American Academy of Sleep Medicine, March 2007
- Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication. Occup Environ Med 2000;57:649-655 doi:10.1136/oem.57.10.649
- Handbook of Human Performance pp.p. 240 by Andrew P. Smith
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- Inadequate Sleep as a risk factor for obesity.
- Sleep, Less and More, Linked to Heart Disease by Jeanie Lerche Davis.
- TDCJ-ID Grievance No. 2014131437 (042) Step 1 (I-127).