William Booker’s poem “Communion of the Saints” opens with,
It’s 6 a.m. in the Monroe County Jail,
I’ve been awake since breakfast,
which was served at 4:21 a.m. …
It took 3 minutes 25 seconds
to eat a tray of eggs, sausage, hash brown,
biscuit and jelly. Then I lay back down
on my steel bunk and closed my eyes.
His eyes are closed, the thin jail blanket covers his head, but with bright fluorescent lights shining just a few feet from his face, he can’t fall back asleep. He begins to ruminate: “what have I done?” His mind is tormented by “visions of the outside that I don’t see anymore.” This will be another hard day.
In Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker describes numerous research studies showing the ways that we’re impaired when our sleep is disrupted. The vast majority of people need at least 7.5 hours of sleep each night. When sleep deprived – either by missing an entire night’s sleep in one go, or sleeping six or fewer hours a night for several days in a row – people have difficulty regulating their emotions, miss social cues, and struggle to learn new information.
Prolonged sleep deprivation is widely recognized as torture. All animals will die if sleep deprived for too long, typically done in by sepsis: otherwise innocuous bacteria proliferate uncontrollably and poison the blood. Less acute forms of sleep loss – consistently getting fewer than 7.5 hours per night – will ravage a person’s immune system and increase the risk of cancer.
When interrogators deprive people of sleep (yup, the United States is a member of the illustrious group of nations that still tortures people this way, alongside regimes in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudia Arabia, and the like) it becomes very easy to elicit false confessions.
In the former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin’s memoir, White Nights: The Story of a Prisoner in Russia (which is quoted in Why We Sleep), he writes that when the KGB denied him and his fellow prisoners the opportunity to sleep,
I came across prisoners who signed what they were ordered to sign, only to get what their interrogator promised them. He did not promise them their liberty. He promised them – if they signed – uninterrupted sleep.
Inside the jail, the overhead fluorescent lights are not turned off until midnight. At that time, it becomes easier – not easy, but easier – to fall asleep. But the inmates will be jarred awake four hours later for breakfast.
Despite their chronic sleep deprivation, people in jail are expected to learn new habits; people who have self-medicated for the entirety of their adult lives with opiates or amphetamines are expected to find all new ways of living. Sometimes their behaviors really were undesirable – robbery, domestic violence, neglecting children while blinkered on drugs.
But people struggle to learn new skills – sober living among them, although this was not directly assessed in the studies Walker cites – if their brains don’t undergo a large number of electroencephalogram-visible waves called “sleep spindles” during the final hours of sleep. If a person sleeps for six or fewer hours each night, the brain never reaches this stage of sleep.
Wake someone up too early day after day, you stifle learning.
Wrest them into fluorescent wakefulness each morning for a four a.m. breakfast, keep them basically sedentary because a dozen people are packed into a small cement room and the facility is too understaffed to give them “rec time,” constantly elevate their stress hormones by surrounding them with angry, potentially dangerous compatriots, and you ensure that they won’t sleep well. In addition, chemical withdrawal wrecks havoc on people’s sleep cycles. They stagger bleary-eyed through months or years inside. They chug “cocoffala” – commissary instant coffee stirred into Coca-cola – hoping to feel some semblance of normalcy. Instead, they get the jitters.
And then, finally, they’re set free – usually to probation, expected to follow more rules than the average citizen.
“I’m gonna be out next week,” a dude told me.
“Congratulations! You’ll get family Christmas after all.”
“Eh, it’s not so great. I’ll be back before New Years.”
“They say I gotta do probation two years. I slip, they’re sending me to prison.”
“Can you do it?”
“Two years? I’m not gonna make it two weeks. Way I see it, I get out, I gotta call up Judge Diekhoff, tell her it’s been real and all, but we gotta start seeing other people.”
He would’ve struggled to change his life in the best of circumstances. But he certainly couldn’t do it sleep deprived.