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

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

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

“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

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.