Since COVID-19 lockdowns started in April of 2020, the global pandemic has taken its toll inside Oregon’s only federal prison. Those in custody report “dangerous and unbearable conditions” that “could reasonably be considered excessive punishment,” according to a court filing from the federal public defender.
The filing, submitted late Friday, raises serious concerns about the welfare and health care of the more than 1,500 people locked up inside the Sheridan correctional facility, which has locked inmates in their cells, often for several days at a time, throughout the pandemic.
As of Tuesday, the prison had 30 positive cases of COVID-19, the second-highest active number in the country, behind a federal prison in Florida.
“Mentally and physically, inmates are suffering,” Oregon’s federal public defender Lisa Hay wrote in the court document. “Inmates report that unit staff are unavailable to answer questions or to listen to medical concerns. Staff shrug their shoulders and walk away. Cellmates ring alarms but nothing happens. A sense of helplessness and hopelessness pervades.”
A spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons said the agency “does not comment on pending litigation or matters subject to legal proceedings.”
Hay stated in her court filing that “inmates are begging for help” and “describe serious, untreated medical conditions; mental stress from isolation; and unresponsive and demoralized staff.”
One person wrote to the federal public defenders’ office Aug. 12, describing a fellow prisoner in need of medical care: “Inmate [redacted] has a medical problem where he is delirious, cant walk cuz his legs are swollen beyond the scope of ‘normal edema’, he has spoke to multiple staff and medical personal ... he needs immediate medical attention and they are refusing to do ANYTHING to change his current medical status. he NEEDS HELP. he cant walk on his own and needs help distinguishing clothing from bedding because he isn’t of a normal state of mind.”
On Aug. 9, another wrote they were having difficulty getting medical care for their enlarged heart, which caused numerous infections and two trips by ambulance to a hospital.
“I was scheduled to go back to see the cardiologist to discuss putting a pace maker in to help. the medical here denied this and i have found out via one of the nurses that i was denied cause i only have a couple of years left and that and the procedure costs allot of money. i was turned down for compassionate release,” the inmate wrote to attorneys.
Others noted housing units on lockdown due to COVID-19.
Dr. Stuart Grassian, a clinical psychiatrist and former Harvard Medical School professor, has studied the effects of confinement on prisoners. He spoke to several detainees at Sheridan during the pandemic and reviewed court testimony and medical records for some of the inmates.
“In the most severe conditions, inmates have been locked up in their cell either 24 hours a day for many days in a row, or with extremely limited opportunity for outdoor exercise or recreation,” Grassian wrote in a declaration filed by Hay last week. “The experience of other inmates was variable. There were reports of 1.5 hours a day out of the cell during Monday through Friday, and 24-hour lockup during weekends.”
In his statement, Grassian also raised concerns about the lack of programming inside the prison due to the pandemic and the extremely limited access to use the phone to contact the family on the outside. Hygiene was another concern Grassian documented inside Sheridan.
“One inmate described having to use his own dirty laundry as toilet paper because no toilet paper was supplied for a month. Another stated that he was told to use a rag because there was no toilet paper. Inmates reported instances of garbage being uncollected and food trays not being picked up, so that food residues rotted in the cell, creating foul odors,” Grassian wrote. “One inmate stated that meal trays were not picked up for six days, by which time there were maggots living inside the Styrofoam tray.”
Among his recommendations, Grassian said staff needs to alleviate the uncertainty by providing truthful and frequent information to those locked up inside the prison.
“I conclude to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that these conditions at Sheridan are having a severely deleterious effect on the population,” Grassian wrote. “The longer the conditions continue, the worse the likely effect on the mental and physical health of inmates.”
Hay has asked a federal judge to order an inspection of the prison and regular updates about vaccination rates of Sheridan staff, length of time inmates are confined to their cells and an ombudsman to help staff and inmates communicate concerns.