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“On-Going Distress and Harm” Persist at FCI Sheridan Months After Court-Ordered Inspection

by Brooke Kaufman

In a status report filed in federal district court in Oregon in February 2022, a federal public defender said conditions at the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) at Sheridan remained just as dire as she had found during an inspection the previous September, leaving prisoners there to suffer “on-going distress and harm.”

In a damning declaration filed three weeks after that earlier walk-through on October 8, 2021, the public defender, Lisa Hay, told the court that FCI Sheridan was not providing adequate medical care to treat and prevent COVID-19 infection nor those preexisting conditions requiring prescriptions. 

The expert report accompanying Hay’s most recent filing doesn’t show the situation has improved. Dr. Michael T. Puerini, a correctional healthcare specialist, said that prisoners at FCI Sheridan continue to be frustrated by “what appears to be an active deterring of patients from accessing care.”

Not only are prisoners unable to submit healthcare requests on a daily basis but their requests when finally submitted are not triaged “within 24 hours, as is the current standard of care.” Guards collect and deliver prisoner requests, breaching their confidentiality. The prison was also still using its gym as a COVID-19 isolation ward, where there was inadequate access to proper hygiene, medications, or nursing care.

“Using an understaffed gymnasium (no healthcare staff were seen) as an infirmary is simply irresponsible,” Dr. Puerini concluded.

The reports were filed by Hay on behalf of the client she was appointed to represent by the court, prisoner John Philip Stirling, in a lawsuit he filed near the beginning of the pandemic on April 30, 2020, alleging unconstitutional conditions of confinement at the federal prison.

In previous declarations, Hay and her investigators reviewed information gathered from data provided by the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), information on COVID-19 infections, as well as reports from prisoners, family members of prisoners, and defense attorneys.

In letters to Hay’s office, prisoners also report prolonged lockdown periods in cell blocks and common areas that left them feeling “punished because of COVID[-19]” with “no interaction [with] people, programming, [or] recreation … we get and have nothing, no voice, just sickness and stress.” Other letters describe feeling like a “dog in a cage” with “hardly enough time to… make a call” to family members, friends, or attorneys.

Prior to the court-ordered inspection in September 2021, prisoners contacted Hay’s office to report that prison staff were “quickly making changes to hide the true conditions of confinement,” including daily meals and water container deposits for COVID-19 patients, mask distributions, and cleaning of facilities. The “smoke and mirrors” performance, as described by one prisoner’s letter, quickly vanished once the inspectors left: “Things were good for the day you came but when you left it all went back to the way they been treating us.”

Hay’s Chief Investigator, William J. Teesdale, described written complaints visibly “protruding from cell doors” and prisoners calling out to members of the inspection team saying, “[T]hese guys are going to kill us.”

Following the walk-through of the prison, Teesdale concluded that the inspection, together with information provided by prisoners, exposed “consistent problems” relating to COVID-19 lockdowns, inaccessible and insufficient standards of medical care, and lack of programming and access to prison facilities. The report affirms prisoners’ accounts of “dismal conditions” that are causing “widespread distress and harm” to prisoners and their support systems.

Since the inspection, however, poor conditions have persisted, including disrupted food service, extreme stress for families and prisoners, medical and dental neglect, deteriorating hygiene protocols, limited access to legal assistance, violation of attorney/client privilege, threats to physical and mental health, and “intermittent relief” from extended periods of confinement.

Additional elements of discovery have corroborated prisoner accounts of ongoing “inhumane” conditions at FCI Sheridan. Hay’s latest declaration makes clear that prisoners continue to suffer an unacceptable level of medical neglect. See: Stirling v. Hendrix, USDC (D. Or.), Case No. 3:20-cv-00712.  

Additional source: Oregon Public Broadcasting

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Related legal case

Stirling v. Hendrix