Legal documents filed Tuesday raise concerns about the conditions inside the federal prison in Sheridan, Oregon, which has remained on lockdown since March 31 over concerns about COVID-19.

“Whether through indifference or incompetence, the Federal Bureau of Prisons is endangering the lives of individuals entrusted to its care by failing to establish consistent and effective safeguards to protect them from the coronavirus,” the documents state, noting that more than 80 federal inmates across the country have died and thousands more have been sickened from COVID-19.

There are no reported cases of the disease at the Sheridan Federal Correctional Institution, but there are 12 pending tests. The lawsuit was filed by Oregon federal public defender Lisa Hay on behalf of an inmate inside the prison.  

The Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan.

The Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra/OPB

Inmates in prisons and jails are at higher risk for contracting COVID-19 because of their communal living setting, where social distancing is extremely difficult.

Rather than reduce density in its facilities to create more social distancing, BOP has “instituted increasingly draconian lockdown measures,” the complaint states.

Some inmates have been confined to their cells for 23 hours per day, at other times inmates have been locked up for more than 72 hours straight. Some inmates are triple-bunked in two-person cells with limited, or few opportunities to speak with the outside world and take part in educational programs. The complaint also alleges necessary medical care has been reduced or eliminated.

“We have illegally been under lockdown for 19 days,” John Stirling, an inmate, wrote to his attorneys. The information about conditions inside Sheridan was included in Stirling’s petition for habeas corpus filed Tuesday in federal court.

“Cut off from phones, showers, email and quality food. Four hours out in 14 days only. No Phones. The BOP increased phone time from 300 to 500 minutes/month. But we are locked down and can not use it,” Stirling wrote.

Tuesday’s lawsuit seeks Stirling’s release due to his age and underlying health conditions that put him at greater medical risk to the coronavirus. It also asks the court to force the Federal Bureau of Prisons to more broadly address conditions at the prison. It names Sheridan Warden Josias Salazar as the sole defendant. 

Inmates said for months they have only received one hour out of their cell, twice a day. On weekends, the people in custody said, they are completely locked inside from Friday until Monday.

“They have difficulty reaching family members by phone or email because, in the limited time they have out of their cell, the lines for the phones and computers are long,” the petition notes.

Most inmates don’t wear masks. On May 25, more than 70 inmates at Sheridan were allowed out of their cells for about two and a half hours. “There are not social distancing measures being enforced and most all inmates are in very close proximity to each other during that 2.5 hours,” the petition states.

The complaint also said conditions have degraded since the lockdown.

“Inmates report receiving ‘baloney sandwiches’ day after day,” the petition states.

It notes that one person in custody died by suicide two weeks after the lockdown began. 

“Inmates report that two other detainees engaged in acts of self-harm while locked in their cells, one reportedly slashing his neck. Other inmates report they are stressed and feel poor physically due to cramped conditions, lack of fresh air, lack of exercise, and poor food. Some inmates reportedly contemplated or started hunger strikes,” the document states.

The Oregon Department of Corrections, which isn’t connected to the federal system, has been hit hard by the virus. More than 230 inmates and staff have contracted the virus, though many have recovered. Last month, one inmate died from the disease.