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Sleep tight: An unusual safety procedure

Encouraging sleep in inmates creates a safer working environment

Lack of sleep can be a security hazard. Sleep-deprived inmates are more likely to be irritable and angry. A housing unit full of those who are “walking tired” can lead to quarrels and violence. Chronic sleep loss can slow reactions and alter moods. Sleeplessness affects the mind; it also affects the body.

Chronic lack of sleep can lead to diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. Tired, irritable inmates are difficult to manage. Helping inmates get sufficient rest can increase officer safety and improve everyone’s health.

Why Inmates Don’t Sleep

Sleep can be elusive in a correctional facility. For example, guides such as this one from the CDC recommend controlling lighting and noise in the sleep environment – not possible in jails and prisons.

Providing prescription sleep medications is also ill-advised in the correctional setting. These medications are not appropriate for self-administered (KOP) due to the likelihood of abuse in the prison environment and the last pill line of the day is rarely close to the bedtime hour to allow the medication maximum effect.

In fact, the entire daily timetable can be topsy-turvy in a setting where meal times and bedtimes are governed by security procedure. Some prisons serve breakfast at 3am and lunch at 10am. The body clock may never adjust to these changes and be unwilling to shut down for sleep when needed.

Encouraging Sleep Behind Bars

Good sleep habits behind bars takes some adjustment. The Prison Health Taskforce out of the UK has a helpful guide to sleep in prison that can be adapted to your setting. Consider providing sleep guidelines for your new intakes. Here are some key points from the guide:

  • Stay Active: Many inmates mistakenly try to sleep away their sentence by taking cat naps all day long. This only leads to more insomnia. Have inmates create a list of daytime activities that will keep them out of the bunk most of the day.
  • Have a Bedtime Routine: Even though it will be different than home, establishing a new routine helps the body shut down and move into sleep mode. Regular pre-sleep activities can include reading, mild stretching, and meditation.
  • Reduce Noise and Light: Consider alternatives that might be possible in the housing area such as eye-shades or ear-plugs. Even reversing the pillow end of the bunk or rigging a towel curtain may help block out distracting light.
  • Nightmares and Anxieties: Inmates may be worried about assault or have concerns about family issues. Sleeplessness may be an acceptable ‘medical’ condition that masks an underlying emotional or psychological concern. Referral to social services or housing relocation may be necessary.
  • Commissary Options: Although use of prescription sleeping medication is not recommended, some individuals have success with natural aids such as melatonin or valerian. These preparations could be made available through the commissary.

The sleep habits of the inmates in your charge may not seem, at first, to be important. Sleep, however, contributes to mental disposition and physical health; both important to the safety and well-being of both the inmate and officer community at your facility.

How do you deal with sleepless inmates? Share your tips in the comment section of this post.

Dr. Schoenly has been a nurse for 30 years and is currently specializing in correctional healthcare. She is an author and educator seeking to improve patient safety and professional nursing practice behind bars. Her web-presence, Correctional Nurse, provides information and support to those working in correctional health care. Her books, Essentials of Correctional Nursing and The Correctional Health Care Patient Safety Handbook are available in print and digital on Amazon.

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