By editorial board • 

Alleged Sheridan prison abuses demand urgent, forceful response

The handbook at rural Yamhill County’s FCI Sheridan, a medium-security federal prison housing more than 1,500 inmates, opens its section on inmate rights and responsibilities this way: “You have the right to expect that as a human being, you are treated respectfully, impartially and fairly by all personnel.” 

But that has not been the case since the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, and conditions have gotten even worse now that it has eased, according to a broad cross section of inmates and broad array of their advocates.

Federal Public Defender Lisa Hay has taken the lead in pressing in the federal courts. 

Last fall, she filed a petition in U.S. District Court seeking, among other measures of relief, investigation into conditions of confinement and medical care, appointment of an outside ombudsman, and a hearing into allegations of “dangerous and unbearable conditions.”

When that seemed to spark more in the way of retaliation than relief, according to accounts never addressed in any degree of detail by prison overseers, Hay responded with an emergency motion to the court. In it, she accused the prison of importing tactical squads from farflung sister facilities to conduct a tsunami of roustings, searches and beatings.

Though broad in nature, Hay indicated the imported special operations forces tended to single out inmates who had lodged complaints, filed grievances or pursued legal action. In fact, one was allegedly beaten so badly he lost consciousness and had to be removed on a stretcher with blood streaming down his face.

Inmates said the visiting officers wore body armor and shirts reading “Sheridan Disruption Unit.” They said the officers instituted a reign of terror during the last two weeks of July.

In her petition, Hay sought appointment of a special master to investigate the allegations and issuance of a temporary restrainng order barring retaliatory actions or destruction of evidence. She said conditions currently prevailing at the facility, built in 1989 and expanded in 1994, violate inmates’ constitutional protection from cruel and unsual punishment. 

Responses from federal Bureau of Prisons officials have been cursory at best. A major takeout by Oregon Public Broadcasting drew nothing more from the bureau than an e-mail declining to comment on allegations of an “anecdotal” nature.

News-Register reporter Paul Daquilante, whose beat has encompassed the prison for decades, produced a dramatic account of conditions for Tuesday’s edition, based on a phone interview with an embattled inmate.

That inmate’s allegations mirrored those detailed in appalling and graphic terms in the court filings. They convey institutionalized  abuse we’ve come to associate with repressive autocracies like Russia, China and North Korea, not with a western democracy affording its citizens a constitutional right to humane conditions.

The audacious scale and horrific detail of the allegations demand a detailed, on-point response from FCI Sheridan and its parent Bureau of Prisons, not just off-hand e-mailed brushoffs from afar. They also demand urgent and diligent outside investigation, and strong, effective safeguards in the meantime.

A long series of lockdowns, some lasting several days, has been documented. So has a June hunger strike and a water cutoff that appeared to be retaliatory in nature. That’s enough to warrant serious investigation in its own right.

The prison has even come under fire on the staff side. In a recent post headed, “Stuck in the past,” a former employee termed the work environment “very racist and bigoted,” “very stagnant and negative.” 

No matter what they did to land themselves in federal prison, the inmates deserve better than a steady barrage of beatings and lockdowns, and importation of what one member of the public defender’s office termed a “goon squad” intent on cracking heads.

The taxpayers also deserve better than a wall of bureaucratic silence. They deserve a full and fair accounting of anywhere the system has gone off the rails, along with ironclad promises of swift and sure remedy.


Web Design and Web Development by Buildable