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Federal judge dismisses claims of mistreatment in Oregon prison as wrong legal strategy

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

Nearly 200 people currently and formerly held in custody at the Sheridan Federal Correctional Institution had claimed cruel and unusual punishment over prison conditions during and after the COVID-19 pandemic; all claims were dismissed Tuesday

A federal judge in Oregon Tuesday dismissed the claims of nearly 200 current and former people in custody at the Sheridan Federal Correctional Institution who argued the prison’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was so inhumane and poorly executed the only remedy was to release them from custody.

Court filings show people in custody said they were not provided with sufficient medical care or mental health care. This included people suffering from untreated cancers. Many alleged they have been beaten in retaliation for participating in the court case. At least seven people have died at the prison since the pandemic began, not from COVID-19, but from untreated medical problems as well as drug-related overdoses.

In her ruling, U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie Beckerman sided with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, ruling those in custody have been pursuing the wrong legal strategy for much of the last two and a half years since the first case was filed. Rather than habeas corpus, Beckerman noted those in custody should have worked to address their concerns through administrative processes aimed at reducing prison litigation.

“Although the Court is sympathetic to Petitioners’ difficult experiences at Sheridan during the pandemic, the Court cannot conclude that merely alleging that no conditions of confinement could satisfy the Eighth Amendment is sufficient to confer habeas jurisdiction under circumstances such as those present here,” Beckerman said in her ruling.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office represented the Bureau of Prisons in the case and did not responded to requests for comment on the ruling.

Oregon’s Federal Public Defender represented those in custody and said late Wednesday the office is considering whether to appeal Beckerman’s dismissal.

“We are devastated that the harm done to people in custody at Sheridan during the pandemic remains unaddressed,” Oregon’s Federal Public Defender Lisa Hay said in a statement. “Societies that incarcerate people have an obligation to care for them, and we have failed to care for and protect the people in custody at Sheridan.”

Like most prisons and jails across the country, Sheridan struggled under the unprecedented challenges COVID-19 presented. The litigation provided striking allegations about the conditions and inner workings of the federal prison complex during a time when the pandemic had largely cut off most prisons from the outside world. And problems continued even as the pandemic receded, according to court filings.

In July, people in custody alleged their cells were tossed and they were indiscriminately beaten by teams of out-of-town correctional officers who were part of a BOP Special Operation and Response Team. Guards on the special team indicated it was retaliation for legal claims against the prison, according to court documents filed by Oregon’s Federal Public Defender. The allegations prompted a letter from both of Oregon’s U.S. Senators to BOP’s new director, Colette Peters.

Other court filings raised concerns about the lack of medical care, including cancer patients not receiving treatment for months. Others in custody said they’d attempted suicide and had not received the medication or mental health treatment they’d requested.

In dismissing the case, Beckerman shut down a forum where these and other concerning allegations were made public. The Bureau of Prisons has said little about its medical care, the deaths or the purpose for the special operations team.

“Petitioners insist that they are challenging the fact of their confinement, but they do not allege that their convictions or sentences are invalid in the first instance or that they are being held in excess of a lawfully imposed term of imprisonment,” Beckerman wrote in her 24-page opinion. “Instead, Petitioners allege that the harsh conditions at Sheridan place them at risk of serious harm from COVID-19, allegations premised on the conditions, and not the validity, of their confinement.”

The case began on April 30, 2022, when John Stirling, who was being held pretrial at the Sheridan Federal Detention Center, filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. He alleged Sheridan staff weren’t taking protective measures such as wearing masks and gloves, that the prison wasn’t quarantining new detainees when they arrived at the facility, and the facility was on lockdown preventing detainees from showers, email, phones and decent food.

Oregon’s Federal Public Defender’s office was appointed to take Stirling’s case, and eventually the nearly 200 that would follow. In additional court documents, the public defenders alleged the Bureau of Prisons failed to establish safeguards, such as effective quarantine procedures, universal testing and access to masks and other personal protective equipment. They also called out the prison for not reducing its population.

“Stirling claimed that, in light of the BOP’s decision to use lockdowns instead of de-densifying Sheridan and the risk that he might nevertheless contract COVID-19, there were ‘no conditions of confinement at Sheridan [that could] meet constitutional requirements’ and therefore the Eighth Amendment required his immediate release,” Beckerman stated in her 24-page opinion. She disagreed with that reasoning.

The ruling also prevents any future filings in the case. Hay, the federal public defender, wanted to file a lengthy case summary as part of the court record. The filing, which Beckerman sealed, outlines the 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.”

Many of the issues raised in the habeas corpus petitions could still be used in potential civil litigation.

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.