U.S. Justice Department attorneys told a federal magistrate Thursday that conditions at the Sheridan, Oregon, FBP complex had improved.
This summer, there was a hunger strike at the detention center to protest conditions and reports of out-of-state guards beating inmates involved in the litigation mentioned this week.
Oregon senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley wrote to the chief of the Federal Bureau of Prisons last month to ask about violence and mental health concerns. Colette Peters oversaw Oregon’s state prison system for a decade before taking the role in August. She visited Sheridan herself three weeks ago.
This lawsuit involves jail conditions. Lisa Hay, Oregon’s federal public defender, represents more than 200 people in habeas corpus petitions. They claim the case should be litigated under the Prison Reform Litigation Act, which limits inmates’ rights to contest their detention.
Inmates at Sheridan have complained for more than two years about the prison’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, which resulted in lengthy lockdowns that often lasted entire weekends and inadequate medical care. Seven people have died at the facility since the epidemic began, but none from COVID-19.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Alison Milne told the court that things had changed since 2020. Milne said jail programming and recreation had resumed, save for 11 prisoners with COVID-19.
Thursday’s meeting was contentious as Justice Department officials representing the Federal Bureau of Prisons sought to narrow the case’s scope.
Since 2020, Hay’s office has documented the experiences and allegations of prisoners within the federal prison during the epidemic. Concerns include cancer patients not receiving appropriate treatment, food quality, and the mental toll of being confined in a small cell.
During Thursday’s hearing, Hay called the treatment “Orwellian” and some guards “thugs.” Milne’s comments about jail conditions were not made under oath, therefore the Bureau of Prisons and people in its custody may disagree.
Attorney John Coit opposed Hay’s portrayal.
Hay’s office filed an emergency motion after learning of a SORT at the prison. Hay’s complaint claims that some of those targeted had previously sued over facility conditions. Insider stories described teams of prison employees wearing “stab-vests” and “Sheridan Disruption Unit” shirts participating in unit-by-unit, cell-by-cell violence in July.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie Beckerman denied Hay’s request for a special master last month. Beckerman let attorneys review the matter Thursday.
“The government has never contested these charges in court,” Hay said, noting they requested surveillance footage from the Bureau of Prisons. Hay wants to depose personnel.
Coit argued the allegations shouldn’t be part of the lawsuit and called further investigation “intrusive discovery.”
Hay intends to file a “proposed finding of fact” outlining the case. This summer, federal attorneys didn’t oppose Hay’s submission, but they’ve altered their minds. The government asked Beckerman to seal Hay’s summary this month, which she did.
The filing lists seven deaths since March 2020, including one suicide.
“The effect on the mental and physical health of jailed people has been severe,” the lawsuit says. Repeated coronavirus infections, isolation, indefinite detention, and hardship have pushed FCI Sheridan residents to the breaking point. Their requests for aid, including a hunger strike, were treated with apathy and sometimes violence.
The petition says the facility violated convicted detainees’ eighth amendment rights and pre-trial detainees’ due process rights. It adds that “given the trend of constitutional violations over the last two years, no Sheridan circumstances can be constitutional.”
Beckerman has stopped additional filings. Beckerman took the case under advisement Thursday and indicated she’d rule on how or whether to proceed.
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