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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Judge grants compassionate release to convicted bank robber, calls his time at Oregon’s federal prison ‘excruciating experience’

May 6, 2022 Updated Fri., May 6, 2022 at 10:01 p.m.

By Maxine Berstein Oregonian

A judge has granted early release to a 53-year-old man serving a federal prison term for two bank robberies, finding he served significant periods without access to his psychiatric medication or received medication that made his symptoms worse with no recourse.

U.S. District Judge Michael W. Mosman this week granted James Lee Wood compassionate release, calling his prison term “an excruciating experience.”

Wood will leave prison May 16, about two years earlier than his anticipated release date of April 2024.

He was sentenced for robbing one bank in Eugene and another in Salem in less than five days later in August 2018. He wasn’t armed but implied he had a gun.

Wood is one of 155 people serving federal prison sentences during the pandemic who received compassionate release with the help of the Oregon Federal Public Defender’s Office. They must show “particularly extraordinary or compelling circumstances” that couldn’t have been foreseen by the court at sentencing.

About 40 of the prisoners were held at the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan, according to Lisa Hay, Oregon’s federal public defender.

“We continue to be appalled at the conditions at Sheridan,” Hay said.

Wood’s prison sentence coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic “almost precisely,” the judge noted.

In response to the virus, the prison canceled rehabilitative programming, offered limited educational opportunities and left inmates for long periods in the functional equivalent of solitary confinement or lockdown, Mosman said.

Due to Wood’s psychiatric problems, “all of this uncertainty, the fear of COVID, the lockdowns, the lack of evaluation, the lack of human contact sometimes is particularly acute for him and frightening,” Mosman said.

Wood also was assaulted by another inmate who was suffering from mental health problems and gnawed on Wood’s wrist, according to court records. Days later, Wood said it appeared the wound was becoming infected and he repeatedly requested care but none was granted, Wood and his lawyer told the court.

Instead, Wood tried to clean the wound himself, pouring hot water on it, and the bite began to heal, according to Hay.

“When you get attacked like that here, it changes everything,” Wood told the judge, speaking by phone from prison.

He said he’s suffered more panic attacks. “It’s put me on an edge. … It’s really magnified everything … I try my best to maintain a level head and look to the bigger picture.”

Mosman credited Wood for enduring the “onerous and unfortunate” conditions in prison without causing any disciplinary problems, saying it’s “a credit to his inner core.”

The judge also said he was taking into consideration, too, that Wood would have likely received credit for time off his sentence for attending a drug treatment program. Wood had been accepted into the program but hadn’t been allowed to start classes as planned. He also should have received credit for time off his sentence for working about two years in the prison bakery.

Mosman asked if the prison hasn’t gone through the administrative steps of calculating the earned time or if it just isn’t going to afford the credit. Under the First Step Act signed into federal law in December 2018, new earned time credits are to be granted to inmates who complete certain rehabilitative programs or for work done in prison.

Wood and his lawyer said he either didn’t get a response from prison officials about the time off his sentence or they said they didn’t know how to calculate it.

“Inmates have told us over and over that they are not able to get responses from staff there because they’re significantly understaffed at Sheridan,” Hay told the judge.

“I’m saddened but not surprised to hear that,” the judge responded.

Mosman stressed that he wasn’t blaming the prison employees but believes the problems are due to the prison’s chronic understaffing.

Wood will be released to a sober home in Springfield.

Hay is representing prisoners in a separate case pending against the warden of the prison in Sheridan, alleging unconstitutional confinement. She’s seeking emergency measures to ensure inmates get access to medical care and steps are taken to decrease “the psychic stress of the confinement.”

In February, the parties to the case talked about initiating potential settlement discussions, but Hay said she couldn’t do so on behalf of the many inmates she’s representing.

A case schedule was drafted instead. Attorneys for the prison plan to file a motion to dismiss the suit.

Dewayne Hendrix, the Sheridan warden, has defended the steps taken to control the spread of the coronavirus.

“I acknowledge that prison conditions have been relatively harsher during the COVID-19 pandemic due, in part, to restrictions on inmate movement, prohibitions on gatherings, and reduced availability of programs,” Hendrix wrote in a court filing.

“My top priorities are to safety and security of inmates, staff, and the surrounding community,” he wrote. “I have had to strike a balance with our modified operations protocols, remaining flexible to respond to changing circumstances within FCI Sheridan.’’

Hay has argued that conditions at Sheridan cannot be remedied through the incremental steps of addressing inmate concerns one-by-one.

Sheridan is now at a Level 2 operational level, meaning face masks are required indoors and when social distancing isn’t possible outdoors.

Educational and other programming remains limited due to social distancing requirements and visitations are noncontact only.

Three inmates and six staff at the prison in Sheridan currently have tested positive for COVID-19 among the 1,499 inmates now in custody, according to Bureau of Prison figures.

Since the start of the pandemic, 504 inmates and 22 staff have recovered from the coronavirus, and two inmates died who had tested positive for COVID-19 in the Sheridan prison, according to federal Bureau of Prisons data.

In September, U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie F. Beckerman allowed Hay and a small team to conduct an inspection at the prison. The team included a corrections health care expert, Dr. Michael Puerini, who retired as chief medical officer of the Oregon State Correctional Institution in 2016.

He found that Sheridan’s inmates aren’t getting adequate access to medical care and they’re “actively deterred from accessing medical care,” according to court records. He also found their requests for medical help aren’t being tracked or kept by the prison.

Hay and an investigator for her office, Courtney Withycombe, shared in documents filed in the broader pending case that inmates “continue to be confined for inhumane periods in small cells; access to family and support systems is curtailed; urgent medical needs go unaddressed,” and urgent calls for help are going unaddressed.

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