A lawyer for two soldiers serving time in Fort Lewis’ on-post jail is alleging the military violated his clients’ civil rights by monitoring phone calls and possibly filming them during a strip search.
James Branum, representing Travis Bishop and Leo Church, also said female guards watched his clients during strip-searches, while using the restroom and while taking a shower. He plans to file a letter seeking answers this week, and likely a formal complaint later this month. He also said a federal lawsuit is possible.
Fort Lewis spokesman Joseph Piek denied wrongdoing by prison guards, who are active-duty military policemen. He acknowledged that strip-searches could have been caught on camera but said that situation has been corrected.
“Everything we’ve done has been within Army regulations,” Piek said. “You have to remember: These guys are prisoners. There is no such thing as a completely private, unmonitored phone call. ”
Bishop and Church, both of whom served at Fort Hood and were convicted of going absent without leave, arrived last month at the Northwestern Joint Regional Correctional Facility, a 190-bed, medium-custody facility at Fort Lewis. Bishop was a sergeant and Church a specialist, but both have been demoted to private.
Since then, Branum said, the treatment of his clients has violated their constitutional rights to counsel and from cruel and unusual punishment.
“You should be able to have a heart-to-heart talk with your lawyer without anybody listening in, without anybody recording,” said Branum, whose law office is in Norman, Okla. “Otherwise, how can you get true and accurate and honest advice?”
Legrand Jones, an Olympia attorney also representing Church and Bishop, alleges he was denied entry onto Fort Lewis.
Bishop is serving a yearlong sentence at Fort Lewis for going AWOL days before his unit deployed to Afghanistan. He said a previous deployment to Iraq disillusioned him, and he couldn’t reconcile his Christian faith with deployment to a foreign country.
He applied for conscientious objector status three days before his unit left but ran when he realized he would be sent anyway. Amnesty International has labeled him a prisoner of conscience.
Church is serving an eight-month sentence. He discovered his three children and their mother were living out of a van in Dallas, and believed the financial strain would only hurt his family more. He was AWOL for several months before his capture.
Both men arrived last month at Fort Lewis within days of each other.
Both soldiers were put in a medical-hold cell for about 10 days and not allowed to use the telephone, even to call an attorney, Branum said.
Piek said new prisoners are segregated from the general population for medical reasons, a process that can take three to 10 days. He said prisoners are allowed to make phone calls, but Branum was not the attorney of record at the time.
Guards were also in the same room when Church and Bishop made calls to Branum, the lawyer said. Branum said the presence of the guards violated attorney-client privilege. When he asked to speak to them, Branum said he was told the attorney room at the facility wasn’t yet completed.
The jail reopened in July after a year of renovations.
“The phone line in (an attorney room) isn’t recorded, like all other phone lines going out of the jail are,” he said. “So every phone call I had with the guys could have been recorded. I always began a call saying, ‘Hey, this is an attorney-client phone call. Please turn off your recorders now.’ But I have to trust them to do that – and that shouldn’t be the issue.”
Piek agreed a private room was not available at the time but said prisoners can make telephone calls to their attorneys without it being recorded. Bishop and Church made calls from a counselor’s room. A guard is required to be nearby make sure they don’t make additional phone calls, he said.
“If it’s a conversation with an attorney, the prisoners will be put in a private room and it’s confidential, as long as it is with the attorney of record,” Piek said. “Otherwise, phone calls are made at a designated time on the prisoner phone system, and these calls are recorded. If a prisoner needs for some reason to make a call on a phone other than the prisoner phone system, then a guard will remain nearby.”
Both Bishop and Church told Branum they weren’t comfortable telling him about conditions at the jail because guards were in the room.
Female guards, strip searches
Branum received a letter from Bishop several days later that female guards watched him use the restroom and take a shower.
Piek said Army regulations allow female guards to supervise male prisoners.
“When female correctional specialists walk through the facility, it is possible that they could see a male prisoner in the restroom or shower,” he said, “but that is not a violation.”
Piek denied that female guards watch strip-searches and said there is appropriate staffing by male guards. Women are “strictly prohibited from conducting frisk searches and strip searches of male prisoners.”
Church also talked to the lawyer about being strip-searched in a room where video cameras typically record. Branum acknowledged he didn’t know if the cameras were filming during the search, but that’s beside the point.
“The issue is not whether the cameras were running or not,” he said. “The issue is that the inmates thought the cameras were running.”
Piek said the prisoners were strip-searched in range of motion-sensor cameras. He said officials have reviewed procedures and strip searches now take place in areas without cameras.
Jones, the two soldiers’ Olympia-based attorney, said he tried to enter Fort Lewis about two days after Church and Bishop arrived. He said he was denied entry at the visitor center and not given a clear reason why. He tried again two weeks later and was granted access to the post.
Piek said Jones arrived unannounced at the visitor center the first time without prior notification and without an escort arranged. He was not listed as an attorney of record at the time, but Piek said the gate guards contacted jail officials, who sent a van to pick up Jones.
The lawyer had departed when it arrived, Piek said.
Jones is also “designated as having limited access to Fort Lewis,” Piek said.
“Because of his prior encounters with law enforcement, he is regarded as a potential threat to good order and discipline on the installation,” he said. “Nonetheless, as Travis Bishop’s lawyer, he has been afforded access to his client.”
Branum will file a letter demanding changes to the jail’s policies this week, he said. If Fort Lewis officials don’t provide the correct answers, he said, he will file an official complaint to the soldiers’ chain of command as provided in the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Depending on what they find, a civil lawsuit in federal court could also be a possibility.
“We’re going to give Fort Lewis a chance to do the right thing first,” he said. “(A lawsuit) isn’t necessary. We’re hoping Fort Lewis just does the right thing.”