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Judge weighing legal path for problems at Oregon’s federal prison

The Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan. Conditions at the prison have come under scrutiny over recent years.
Ericka Cruz Guevarra
The Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan. Conditions at the prison have come under scrutiny over recent years.

During a tense hearing in U.S. District Court, the U.S. Department of Justice said conditions at the Bureau of Prisons complex in Sheridan had improved. Oregon’s Federal Public Defender was skeptical.

Attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice told a federal magistrate on Thursday that conditions inside the troubled Federal Bureau of Prisons complex in Sheridan, Oregon, had improved.

As recently as this summer, there was a hunger strike at the detention facility in protest of the conditions and reports of out-of-state guards allegedly beating people in custody who were participating in the litigation discussed at this week’s hearing.

The situation has gained national attention, including from Oregon U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley who wrote to the head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons last month asking for an explanation into the allegations of violence and concerns about mental health. Colette Peters, the newly assigned director of the nation’s prisons, ran Oregon’s state prison system for a decade until she took the job in Washington, D.C. in August. She visited Sheridan herself during a West Coast tour three weeks ago.

At its root, this is a case about conditions inside the prison. Oregon’s Federal Public Defender Lisa Hay is representing more than 200 people in habeas corpus petitions, which attorneys for the government argue presents jurisdictional issues. More than two years on, they say the case should be litigated under the Prison Reform Litigation Act, which limits the ability of those in custody to challenge certain aspects of their imprisonment.

For more than two years, people in custody at Sheridan have complained about the prison’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which they say led to lengthy lockdowns that sometimes lasted entire weekends and an inability to get adequate medical care. Since the pandemic began, at least seven people have died at the facility, though none from COVID-19.

“The conditions are very different than when this case began in 2020,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Alison Milne told the court.

Milne said some programming at the prison has resumed, as has recreation, except for the 11 people who currently have COVID-19.

At times, Thursday’s hearing was tense, as attorneys for the Justice Department, which is representing the Federal Bureau of Prisons, sought to limit the scope of a case they said has dragged on for too long.

Since taking on the case in 2020, Hay’s office has documented the experiences and allegations of people inside the federal prison during the pandemic and raised concerns about everything from cancer patients not receiving necessary treatment, to the quality of the food, and the overall mental toll of being confined in a small cell.

Throughout Thursday’s hearing, Hay went on the offense, describing the treatment at times as “Orwellian” and some allegedly violent guards as “thugs.” And she noted that Milne’s comments about conditions inside the prison were not delivered under oath, suggesting the Bureau of Prisons and those in its custody may not agree things are better.

John Coit, another attorney for the government, said he objected to Hay’s characterization.

In late July, Hay’s office filed an emergency motion after receiving reports of a Special Operations Response Team at the prison. A number of the people who were allegedly targeted had previously filed lawsuits over conditions inside the facility, according to Hay’s filing. The accounts from inside the prison detailed allegations of teams of prison staff wearing “stab-vests” (a kind of body armor) and shirts that read “Sheridan Disruption Unit,” engaging in unit-by-unit, cell-by-cell violence during the last two weeks in July.

Last month, U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie Beckerman declined Hay’s request to appoint a special master to investigate the allegations. During Thursday’s hearing, Beckerman allowed the attorneys to revisit the issue.

“The government has never denied these allegations in this courtroom,” Hay said, noting they did send a letter to the Bureau of Prisons requesting they preserve surveillance footage. Hay said her office would like to take depositions from staff.

Coit said the allegations should not be part of the case and referred to any efforts to get more information as “invasive discovery.”

Hay also wants to file a “proposed finding of fact,” summarizing much of the case. This summer, attorneys for the government did not oppose Hay’s filing, she noted Thursday, but have since changed their minds. Shortly after Hay filed the summary this month as an exhibit, the government asked Beckerman to seal it, which she did.

The filing outlines at least seven deaths at the prison since March 2020, including one person who died by suicide.

“The effect on mental and physical health of incarcerated people has been devastating,” according to the filing, which OPB obtained prior to the judge sealing it. “Repeated waves of coronavirus infections, and the long-term effects of isolation, indeterminate confinement, and deprivation, have pushed residents at FCI Sheridan to the breaking point. Their pleas for help, reaching even the point of a hunger strike, have been met largely with indifference and at times violent retaliation.”

The filing goes on to state that the prison violated the eighth amendment rights of convicted detainees and the due process rights of pre-trial detainees. It states that “in light of the pattern of constitutional violation over the last two years, no conditions of confinement at Sheridan can comply with the Constitution.”

Beckerman has prevented any further filings in the case. On Thursday, Beckerman took the case under advisement and said she would issue her rulings about how, or even whether, the case moves forward.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Conrad Wilson is a reporter and producer covering criminal justice and legal affairs for OPB.