Ore. inmates go on hunger strike in protest of lockdowns, poor conditions
Inmates filed a petition seeking reduction of their sentences, citing two years of alleged unconstitutional conditions
By Maxine Bernstein
SHERIDAN, Ore. — About 80 inmates at the federal prison complex in Sheridan started a hunger strike in the past week in protest of extensive lockdowns in their cells and reports of limited medical care, inadequate meals and restricted access to computers to contact their lawyers and families.
Several defense lawyers heard from their clients that they were refusing to eat and only drinking water to draw attention to the conditions.
One 37-year-old man awaiting trial on a drug conspiracy charge told The Oregonian/OregonLive Monday that he’s been involved in the hunger strike since last Tuesday with the hope it will draw the attention of supervisors at the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The action comes as more than three dozen inmates have filed a petition seeking reduction of their sentences at the prison citing two years of alleged unconstitutional conditions.
Oregon Federal Public Defender Lisa Hay has 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 said she confirmed Monday from government officials that about 80 people held at the prison’s detention center are involved in the hunger strike.
The Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan includes a medium-security prison, currently with 980 inmates, an adjacent detention center with 215 inmates and a minimum-security satellite camp with 309 inmates.
Benjamin O’Cone, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons, said Tuesday that “numerous” inmates at the detention center didn’t accept prison meals “for several days” but had access to the commissary to buy food if they wanted.
The inmates are now accepting their meals, he said in an email.
“Staff are continuing to carefully monitor the situation,” he said. “The facility will return to full operations as soon as possible.”
Hay said she met about a week and a half ago with Oregon’s Chief U.S. District Judge Marco A. Hernandez as well as representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and U.S. Marshals Service to discuss concerns about defense lawyers’ access to their clients at Sheridan. During the meeting, concerns about other conditions in the prison and detention center also were raised, she said.
Defense lawyers Tara Herivel and Jamie Kilberg also said they each represent clients who reported that they had refused to eat over complaints about nearly 21-hour lockdowns in their cells and limited access to a computer room, where they use email to contact their lawyers or relatives.
Kilberg said he heard from his client again on Tuesday, who told him the inmates only started accepting food after the prison had threatened to shut off water to their cells.
Their clients also have reported staffing shortages at the detention center and prison, Herivel and Kilberg said.
In the civil case pending in federal court, Hay has a July 29 deadline to submit a brief urging U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie F. Beckerman to adopt certain findings on the prison conditions and then determine if any relief is warranted.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Amy Potter has urged the judge to dismiss the petition, arguing the Bureau of Prisons and her office have been working to address problems identified at the prison but that the ongoing litigation is taking time away from their efforts.
“We told her when we got called in before the Chief Judge two weeks ago and we’ve told her in emails, ‘We want to collaborate,’” Potter said in court this month, referring to Hay. “…We are trying.”
Sheridan in the past month has operated at a Level 3 quarantine, one of the most restrictive, due to the COVID-19 transmission rate in the surrounding community, not because of an outbreak among inmates, Potter wrote in court records.
That means the suspension of social visits and urging lawyers to meet with clients by video. It is also means limiting the number of people out of their cells at any time, according to Potter.
As of June 21, 90 of the 98 federal prisons were operating at the same quarantine level for the same reason as Sheridan, according to Potter.
As of that date, three Sheridan inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 and one staff member, according to court records.
“While COVID is certainly a public health issue, it is an issue that applies in society as a whole. BOP has and continues to adopt policies to mitigate the risks,” Potter wrote in the court filing. Inmates are vaccinated and tested. Visits are canceled when community rates are high.
Hay said the prisons bureau’s reliance on quarantine levels based on community transmission rate is improper, that the Centers for Disease Control and Protection recommends the quarantine levels reflect the community’s number of new hospital admissions and inpatient beds for coronavirus patients.
Yamhill County’s case rate is low, with 139 per 100,000 population, according to state health department weekly figures. Less than 3 % of the county’s hospital inpatient beds are used by patients with COVID-19, the figures show.
Potter argues that each inmate can seek compassionate release based on individual circumstances, and that the current petition before Beckerman isn’t the proper way to achieve reduced sentences.
The Sheridan prison complex is working to provide inmates access to the law library on a rotating schedule during the quarantine restrictions, according to O’Cone. The prison may open and photocopy incoming mail and share the copies with inmates due to concerns about contraband entering the facility. Current regulations, though, expressly prohibit copying any legal mail, he said.
Kevin Sonoff, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said prosecutors will continue to work in coordination with the federal public defender and court to address matters at Sheridan.
“Our office has, at times and typically in the context of active litigation, worked with BOP on issues related to facility conditions and management in close coordination with the Federal Public Defender and the court,” Sonoff said by email. “Generally, however, we do not advise BOP on the day-to-day management of its facilities. The agency relies primarily on its own existing policies and internal counsel to manage ongoing and emerging issues.’’
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