'We pray to rather die': Immigrants detail struggles at Sheridan prison
Immigration detainees at a federal facility in Sheridan say harsh, prison-like conditions have left them feeling depressed and suicidal, according to court documents filed this week.
Oregon's federal public defender filed habeas corpus petitions Wednesday on behalf of five unnamed men being held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Sheridan. They are among the more than 120 detainees sent to the Yamhill County facility on May 31 to await criminal prosecution under the Trump administration's "zero-tolerance" immigration policy.
"We were in bad condition," a man listed as Detainee No. 4 said. "We pray to rather die because we were facing many problems for so many days."
A writ of habeas corpus directs a person, usually a prison warden, to produce the prisoner and justify his or her detention. If the inmates can demonstrate the incarceration violates their constitutional rights, a judge can order their release. In the legal filings submitted by public defender Lisa Hay, the five detainees describe being confined to tiny cells for 22 hours a day, strip-searched and denied access to legal help.
William Teesdale, an investigator for the federal public defender's office in Portland, noted that many of those being detained are seeking asylum.
Under past administrations, people seeking asylum from violence or persecution in their home countries were considered a vulnerable subgroup of immigrants and not prosecuted if they entered the country illegally. But that changed in May, when the Justice Department declared that anyone apprehended entering U.S. unlawfully would be prosecuted. Families were split up, with the adults being shipped to jails and children placed in the custody the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
But the policy of separating children from their parents and reports of poor conditions at some detention centers sparked public outcry. Oregon's Sen. Ron Wyden, Sen. Jeff Merkley, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, all Democrats, expressed dismay after touring the Sheridan site in June.
Merkley said Thursday it was disturbing to see the conditions detainees endured at Sheridan.
"I think they were all very shocked that they were being treated as criminals," Merkley said.
Although they stayed on a different floor, detainees were housed in the same building and with the same conditions as prisoners, Merkley said. The cells were small and cramped.
Merkley said he was surprised to learn the men didn't know how to contact their families or lawyers. Someone had told them it would cost significant amounts of money to make phone calls, he said, and they had no way to pay.
"It was as if they had been snatched off the street, put in a box and they had no idea what would happen next," Merkley said.
In Wednesday's filing, Detainee No. 2 described the shame of being strip-searched and misery of the living conditions. He also said men were being denied medical care and told there was nothing wrong with them.
"We were never treated that badly like this ever before and were not able to understand as to why are they are giving us this kind of punishment," he said.
Sheridan officers have refused to make religious accommodations, including access to religious services and holy texts, the detainees said.
Detainee No. 4 said some of his fellow Sikhs were forced to have their hair cut. Meanwhile, the prison's Hindu population was forced to eat beef on multiple occasions, even after guards were notified this violated their beliefs.
"We were ridiculed on keeping our religion in mind," Detainee No. 2 said.
Sheridan and Portland Immigration and Customs Enforcement have denied much of what the detainees are saying.
The detainees are kept in a special satellite housing area of the center, Associate Warden Rosa Cham-Estrada said in a federal court statement. They are also given access to lawyers and phones.
There have been language barriers and communication difficulties among the Oregon detainees, who at one time represented 16 countries, according to documents from both Teesdale and the detainees. Many are East Indian, making access to translation even more difficult.
Corey Heaton, assistant field office director for Portland Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said 113 detainees had been briefed with a "Know Your Rights" presentation, and 34 had had at least one consultation with an attorney as of July 12.
However, Detainee No. 2 contends in the July 18 filing that he is still unaware of where he is in his legal process and why he is being kept in difficult conditions.
"We pray that we will be taken out of here," he said. "We will be very thankful to you for this. We had heard that USA does not behave badly with anybody and in fact helps everybody."
At the end of his statement, Detainee No. 4 said he left some details out because there was too much to write in the time he was given. He said the conditions had taken a toll on the health of the detainees.
"We don't blame anybody," he said. "We only demand justice for us. I only request to you that if you feel that our words are true then please enlighten to give justice."