Almost two months ago, in a unprecedented move, the Trump administration transferred 124 immigrants to Oregon’s only federal prison, located outside of Sheridan, Oregon. According to court documents, prison officials were told of the transfer just 24 hours before the immigrants—nearly all asylum seekers—were transferred to the prison. 

Oregon’s Federal Public Defender (FPD), Lisa Hay, quickly sought appointment from a federal judge to investigate the prison conditions in which these asylum seekers were being held. Once appointed, Lisa Hay and her team from the FPD got to work. Attorneys, investigators, staff, and legal interns have spent innumerable hours working through interpreters to understand the conditions the detained immigrants have faced in our Oregon prison.

Last week, they filed 74 habeas corpus petitions on behalf of asylum seekers, a centuries-old legal procedure that protects against unlawful and indefinite imprisonment. The filings describe deeply concerning and likely unconstitutional conditions inside the prison. They lay out heart-wrenching stories from people cut off from the world and suffering at the hands of our government. 

Our country should be a beacon of hope for immigrants fleeing violence and persecution, but instead we have locked asylum seekers in prison. Despite the hardships they have faced, the detained immigrants in Oregon have bravely worked with the team from the FPD to tell their stories and fight for fair and humane treatment. 

As described by one detainee, the asylum seekers were moved through multiple states, with little information on where they were headed:

“[W]e were shifted to California, from there they handcuffed us and took us to Arizona, in Arizona they took us handcuffed to hospital at 4-5 in the morning for an X-ray. Then we were told of being shifted to Washington DC. We started in the [bus] at night handcuffed and shackled and were brought to Sheridan via plane and then bus and placed in a jail here. The handcuffs were removed after 24 hours. We had thought it would be a camp but in fact it was a jail.” 

Upon arriving to Sheridan, detainees were placed into shocking conditions. According to the detainees’ accounts, men were locked three-to-a-cell-for up to 22 or 23 hours per day, forced to eat meals next to the open toilet in their cell, denied religiously appropriate meals or an adequate place to pray, denied religious clothing such as turbans, and provided inadequate medical care, among other concerns. Individual asylum seekers describe mental anguish, thoughts of suicide, fear and confusion over their treatment. Some were separated from their families.

“I have problems with depression and my mind is always racing. I have to cry into my pillow. I have suicidal thoughts but then I remember my family. My family is all I that keeps me going, but it is hard being trapped in this terrible place.”

“Whenever I call my son, I can’t speak to him because he cries too much.”

“[I]t is over a week and we are in the same clothes. When we ask about our procedure, [nobody] is able to tell us anything.”

“We used to be kept in the jail for 22 hours which was very difficult to bear...We were searched naked in front of everybody. We used to get ashamed of each other after this. 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.”

“We have heard that in this country, people are very helpful and treat others like us very well but the situation seems to me is opposite. We can't even follow our religion here as there is no priest of our religion and there is no clean place to worship. There are some people with us who used to tie cloth on their head (turban) but they are not allowed to do so which is an insult to them.”

Today, the attorneys have asked the court to intervene to allow the detained immigrants to practice their faiths while their challenges to their confinement proceed. Specifically, the lawyers have asked the court to provide emergency relief by directing the government to: 

  • provide religious headwear; 
  • allow detainees to have their personal religious items; 
  • allow pastoral visits and religious services; 
  • provide access to religious writings and books;
  • provide space for prayer and other religious practices; 
  • allow detainees to access to religiously-appropriate diets.

The FPD team’s work represents a sustained and dedicated effort to help these asylum seekers. Thank you to Lisa Hay, Stephen Sady, Jess Snyder, William Teesdale and all the unnamed and unnoticed laborers fighting back against such a grave injustice. Not only have they dedicated time, but they have dedicated their hearts to listening to the pain and suffering that these men are still enduring. They have also deftly used their skills as lawyers and legal professionals to lift up the voices of these trapped men.