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Lack of staffing led to 'deeply concerning' conditions at federal prison in Oregon

The main entrance to FCI Sheridan in Oregon.
Office of the Inspector General/Department of Justice
The main entrance to FCI Sheridan in Oregon.

Delays for medical treatment at a federal prison in Oregon reached such a dire state that an inmate faked a suicide attempt in order to get a severely infected ingrown hair addressed. The inmate was subsequently hospitalized for five days in order to treat the infection.

The medical delays that pushed this individual to take drastic actions in order to be seen by a doctor is tied to severe understaffing at the Federal Correctional Institution Sheridan, Ore., according to a new report from the Justice Department inspector general's office.

At Sheridan, correctional officers are working mandatory overtime, leading to exhaustion, and healthcare workers and educators are being brought on to do work they were not hired to do, Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department's inspector general, said in an interview with NPR.

Staffing shortages, with corrections officers and medical personnel, are among the biggest obstacles facing the federal prison system, according to this report, and contribute to other challenges at Sheridan and the more than 120 facilities like it.

"It's a problem that is at least 20 years in the making. It's not going to get fixed overnight. But what these inspections show us how serious the problem has now become," Horowitz said. "It is deeply concerning when you go to a facility like Sheridan and you hear from the staff, correctional officers, health care workers, educators, that they can't do the jobs that they're there to do and they want to do."

The IG office's visit to Sheridan is the agency's third in a series of unannounced inspections of facilities run by the federal Bureau of Prisons. The trip to Sheridan is the agency's first stop at a facility that houses male inmates.

A series of investigations by the BOP watchdog in recent years have documented major challenges within the federal prison system, which is responsible for the housing and care ofclose to 160,000 prisonersnationwide.

The issues revealed at Sheridan again emphasizes "the cascading effects the lack of staffing has on all of the services," Horowitz said. That includes with the inability for the prison to offer mental health treatment, anger management classes, vocational training and other services to hundreds of inmates leaving them ill-prepared to leave prison fully rehabilitated, Horowitz said.

"What we've seen over and over again, in our unannounced inspections of the Bureau of Prisons is the challenges they face in meeting their mission of making prisons safe and secure, and preparing inmates for reentry back into society," Horowitz said. "And this is another case where we've seen severe challenges that they face in fulfilling those missions."

Shortage of both medical personnel and equipment

FCI Sheridan is made up of a medium security prison, a minimum security prison camp and a detention center to house a total of 1,523 male inmates. At the time of the inspection, Sheridan had 81% of correctional services positions filled and 67% positions filled within the Health Services Department (with 18 out of 27 positions filled).

The staffing trouble in both departments contributed to major issues in meeting inmates' medical needs.

At the time of the inspection, there were not enough correctional officers to escort inmates to medical appointments outside the prison, leading to
101 canceled appointments between January and November 2023.

And because there were not enough nurses and doctors at Sheridan, inmates weren't getting lab tests or X-rays done, the report found. Inspectors found a backlog of 725 laboratory orders for blood draws or urine collection and 274 pending X-ray orders — leading to medical conditions potentially going undiagnosed.

Horowitz said the example of the inmate with the gravely infected ingrown hair shows the impact, both in time and expense, of not addressing medical needs early.

There were also supply issues with medical equipment, like oxygen tanks — a problem not unique at other facilities under BOP's control.

Earlier this year, the IG released a report on inmate deaths in custody which found that BOP employees don't always respond to medical emergencies timely or use appropriate medical equipment, like automatic external defibrillators.

Since being informed of the findings at Sheridan, BOP has made changes.

The bureau has been able to complete 89 out of the 101 outside medial appointments and worked to cut the X-ray and lab order backlog.

"The problem is, they've done that, for example with Sheridan, by pulling staff from other prisons to fill the roles," Horowitz said. "So it's a temporary fix at Sheridan. The question is, how do you make sure that continues, and that fixing the problem at Sheridan doesn't create the problem at the other institution where people are coming from?"

In a response to the report, the BOP said it "is taking a multistep approach to filling all funded vacancies across the agency" through increased marketing, recruitment and increasing incentives."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jaclyn Diaz is a reporter on Newshub.