Oregon’s U.S. Senators seek answers from new director of federal prisons about inmates’ claims of retaliation

Senators "concerned" about recent press reports of retaliation and violence against inmates at FCI Sheridan for their claims of mistreatment

By Maxine Bernstein

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Oregon’s two U.S. Senators have sent a letter to the new director of the federal Bureau of Prisons, saying they’re troubled by recent allegations that guards at the federal prison in Sheridan have retaliated against inmates who are suing the prison.

Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley wrote to Colette Peters, formerly the head of Oregon’s Department of Corrections and now federal prison director, demanding an update and answers to a host of questions.

“We are concerned about recent press reports that there has been retaliation and violence against inmates at FCI Sheridan for speaking out about their experiences regarding unaddressed medical needs; small cell confinement; and limited access to family and lawyers as a result of the pandemic,” Wyden and Merkley wrote in a letter released Friday.

They said they want to know by Sept. 19 if the prison is investigating retaliation claims involving guards and whether a special operations response team was brought in to Sheridan.

Further, they’ve asked what steps the prison is taking to ensure inmates aren’t confined in small spaces for extensive time, if they’re making sure inmates’ health and mental health needs are taken care of appropriately and what’s being done to address urgent staffing needs.

They said their offices also have received reports about significant delays in getting treatment and competency evaluations of inmates who are believed to have significant mental health problems and appear unable to assist in their own defense.

“We appreciate that you have just begun your tenure at the BOP, but given the urgency of the situation, we welcome a quick response,” the letter said.

The letter follows a request last month by Oregon’s federal public defender Lisa Hay, who asked a judge to appoint a special investigator to look into allegations that guards at the federal prison in Sheridan are retaliating against inmates for speaking out about their conditions behind bars.

The allegations come amid a pending federal petition by more than three dozen inmates who are seeking a reduction of their sentences at the prison, citing two years of alleged unconstitutional conditions. They’ve argued in court papers that the pandemic and Sheridan’s response has led to confining people in small cells for inhumane periods, curtailing access to family, lawyers and other support systems and allowing urgent medical needs to go unaddressed.

Hay also argued in her motion that the inmates’ reports provide “alarming evidence’' that a group of correctional officers from out of state were brought to the federal prison in Sheridan and “have taken it upon themselves to inflict summary punishment against ( Federal Correctional Institution) residents in retaliation for complaints about conditions and the lawsuits.’’

On Aug. 4, U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie F. Beckerman denied Hay’s motion, saying the court lacked jurisdiction to order such relief about conditions of imprisonment in the pending case that challenges the duration of their confinement.

Hay has asked the court to reconsider its ruling.

Lawyers for the federal prisons bureau, in response, have urged the court not to alter its decision, agreeing that the court has no authority to hear such matters as part of the inmates’ habeas corpus petition. Assistant U.S. Attorneys John G.M. Coit and Alison Milne also argued that the court shouldn’t tread into an area that’s the “province of Congress and prison administrators.”

They contend the inmates have not exhausted administrative grievance steps yet, and that the federal public defender is attempting to “shoehorn conditions-of-confinement civil rights claims into a habeas petition,” according to a court filing by Coit and Milne.

Further, they called the public defender’s exhibits containing statements from Sheridan inmates “a collection of hearsay statements.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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