Judge dismisses claims of unconstitutional conditions at Oregon’s only federal prison

A judge has thrown out petitions by nearly 200 current and former inmates at the federal prison in Sheridan who sought to reduce their sentences for what they alleged were unconstitutional conditions behind bars during the pandemic.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie F. Beckerman ruled their allegations should be part of a civil rights suit, not what are called habeas corpus petitions that seek sentence reductions or release.

The current and former prisoners had argued that Sheridan’s inadequate response to COVID-19 led to confining men in small cells for inhumane periods, curtailing access to family, lawyers and other support systems and allowing urgent medical needs to go unaddressed.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons countered that Sheridan had taken appropriate measures to reduce the effects of the pandemic for people in custody.

It also argued that the judge didn’t have authority to order relief regarding conditions in prison under petitions challenging the duration of confinement. And if any unconstitutional conditions did exist, the bureau said, the prison had other ways to address them, short of releasing people.

Oregon Federal Public Defender Lisa Hay contended the prisoners weren’t merely challenging the conditions of their confinement, but specifically making the claim that pandemic conditions at the prison inherently violated the Constitution’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment.

Beckerman, however, said that while she was “sympathetic to Petitioners’ difficult experiences at Sheridan during the pandemic, the Court cannot conclude that merely alleging that no conditions of confinement could satisfy the Eighth Amendment is sufficient to confer habeas jurisdiction under circumstances such as those present here.”

“The Court concludes that this case cannot, ‘under any good faith calculus,’ be characterized as a habeas proceedings challenging the fact of Petitioners’ confinement,” she wrote in her 24-page ruling issued Tuesday.

The judge said the prisoners acknowledged that the prisons bureau could take steps to improve conditions behind bars, short of release, such as prohibiting transfers of inmates from other prisons to Sheridan, requiring certain cleaning and instituting social distancing protocols.

Further, Beckerman wrote, the Federal Public Defender’s Office has helped more than 155 people serving federal sentences obtain compassionate release during the course of the litigation, including two of the people named in the case.

While Beckerman didn’t address the merits of the claims, she noted that the COVID-19 vaccine and associated booster shots are now widely available in custody and that Sheridan has only one confirmed active COVID-19 case. The prison has returned to a Level 2 “modified” operation, which calls for social distancing and face masks to be worn by staff and prisoners indoors.

“It is clear that the release of all petitioners from federal custody at this time is not necessary to address any alleged unconstitutional conditions of confinement related to COVID-19,” Beckerman wrote.

Hay said Wednesday she and her clients are reviewing their appellate options. Because parties to the case agreed to have a federal magistrate judge hear the case, the current and former prisoners could appeal the ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We are devastated that the harm done to people in custody at Sheridan during the pandemic remains unaddressed,” Hay said in a text message.Societies that incarcerate people have an obligation to care for them, and we have failed to care for and protect the people in custody at Sheridan.”

— Maxine Bernstein

Email mbernstein@oregonian.com; 503-221-8212

Follow on Twitter @maxoregonian

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