Officials: COVID-19 is 10 times higher in Ore. prisons than in rest of state
Of Oregon's 13,129 inmates statewide, a total of 1,225 have been infected; an additional 294 prison employees have tested positive
By Aimee Green
PORTLAND, Ore. — Again and again, they’ve relayed frightening stories about life in Oregon’s prisons in the age of COVID-19:
Sleeping in dormitories with 50, 80 or more than 100 inmates packed so tightly they can stretch out their arms and touch prisoners on either side. The constant hacking coughs from others echoing throughout the room.
Falling ill with symptoms of COVID-19 yet being refused a test and instead being forced to work, potentially exposing countless others.
Inmates and even prison employees refusing to wear masks despite mask mandates.
In the eight months since COVID-19 arrived in Oregon, prisoners and their public defenders say a sense of pessimism and dismissiveness seems to have settled upon parts of the state’s prison system, where inmates have been infected at nearly 10 times the rate as Oregonians as a whole.
So far more than 1,200 inmates have tested positive and 16 have died. Thirteen died in roughly the last two months alone, marking the disease’s accelerated impact on a captive population often unable to physically distance to stay safe.
“We hear our clients say they’re told by staff, ‘You’re all going to get it anyway,’” said Portland lawyer Tara Herivel.
“I would argue it doesn’t matter what they were sentenced for,” Herivel added, “they weren’t sentenced to death by pandemic.”
Herivel is leading a team of more than 20 defense attorneys who’ve filed legal complaints on behalf of over 230 inmates against the Oregon Department of Corrections or local jails for what they describe as a “deliberate indifference” to the health and safety of inmates. The court filings — known as habeas corpus cases — ask judges across the state to order prison and jail systems to implement a host of COVID-19 safety measures or release inmates back into society where they can better protect themselves.
This week, Multnomah County Circuit Judge Michael Greenlick will consider the cases of two prison inmates and one jail inmate — the first grievances argued before a an Oregon judge. A similar push in California resulted in court-ordered transfers or early releases of more than 1,300 inmates at San Quentin State Prison after 29 died during a months-long coronavirus outbreak.
While Oregon’s prison system ranks in the middle of the pack nationwide for coronavirus cases, advocates argue that’s nothing to be proud of in a country with an overall poor track record of keeping inmates safe. Advocates say they remain troubled by well-documented instances of staff ignoring mask requirements and potentially introducing the virus to the prison population.
Of Oregon’s 13,129 inmates statewide, already 1,225 have been infected. An additional 294 prison employees also have tested positive.
Washington state has contained the spread of the novel coronavirus with significantly better success. It has logged one-third the positive tests and one-tenth the deaths per capita among its inmates. Washington prison staff, too, have been infected at about one-third the rate as in Oregon.
Advocates say – if for no other reason – the state of Oregon should be concerned about its bottom line. Failure to take the coronavirus seriously could be fodder for lawsuits when inmates suffer permanent damage or die from their bouts with COVID-19.
The Oregonian/OregonLive presented administrators with the Oregon Department of Corrections a list of written questions. Department spokeswoman Jennifer Black answered some factual inquiries and shared public court documents outlining the department’s general action plan. But the department declined to answer broader questions about its approach, including its response to inmates reporting dangerous living conditions, how the prison system is shoring up its coronavirus protocols in response to the worsening crisis and whether the department plans to conduct mass testing by swabbing every inmate and staffer at prisons that haven’t been able to contain longstanding<del> </del>outbreaks.
Black said the department wouldn’t agree to an interview because of the pending litigation.
Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, said the state’s decision to reduce the number of visitors into its 14 prisons makes sense to hamper the virus' reach. But that also means the prison system isn’t being watched like it used to, limiting transparency.
“People don’t know what’s going on,” Singh said.
“DOC is consistently in this position of trying to affirm they can manage this crisis,” Singh continued. “Their posture has always been: ‘We can do this. ...We’re doing a great job.’”
Working ‘tirelessly’ to protect inmates
Prison officials are still saying essentially just that.
In a recent declaration to Greenlick, the Portland judge, a prison administrator said employees have been working “tirelessly” to protect incarcerated adults.
“We have diligently followed the recommendations of experts both within ODOC and from other state and federal agencies,” wrote Joe Bugher, the department’s assistant director for health services. “...Moreover, ODOC is already taking every reasonable step it can to reduce the spread of COVID-19 within its facilities.”
But Bugher also acknowledged the challenge the pandemic poses.
“We have been working nearly around the clock,” he wrote.
Oregon is by no means alone in its predicament.
More so than even nursing homes or food processing plants, the highly contagious virus has taken hold among the cell blocks and dormitories of the nation’s correctional institutions. Aside from universities and their partying students, prisons account for the 10 largest known COVID-19 clusters in the U.S., according to The New York Times' outbreak tracker.
That’s largely because many prisons, including in Oregon, weren’t built to allow for the physical distancing of inmates. Germ control also has always been a challenge in cold and flu season, cleaning supplies are frequently kept under tight watch and alcohol-based hand sanitizer is often withheld from inmates out of concerns they might drink it or start fires.
More than 138,000 inmates in state prisons have been diagnosed with the disease nationwide. That’s about 10% of the U.S. prison population.
In Oregon, 9% of its prison population has been stricken with the virus. While that’s slightly lower than the national average, Oregon overall has staved off COVID-19 infections far more successfully than the country as a whole.
Less than 1% of Oregonians are known to have been infected with the virus, compared to about 2.5% of Americans.
The Oregon prison system’s poor performance becomes even more stark when compared to Washington’s. Oregon’s prisons have the 23rd highest inmate infection rate among U.S. states and the 10th highest rate of deaths, according to The COVID Prison Project, which tracks the disease’s spread in correctional institutions.
Washington ranks 42nd highest for inmate infections and 34th highest for deaths.
There are obvious differences between the neighboring states' approaches.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has released 950 prisoners compared to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s 123 — or more than 6% of Washington’s 16,700 inmates compared with less than 1% of Oregon’s 13,100 inmates. Advocates for inmates in both states contend that’s not enough.
Washington tests newly incarcerated arrivals twice for COVID-19 in the first week while they’re in quarantine. Oregon tests them only once, 10 days after their arrival and quarantine.
Still, the data shows that Washington has its struggles. It is running fewer tests, about three tests for every four that Oregon administers. The lower testing rate is likely resulting in fewer identified infections, but Washington also could be testing less because there are simply fewer inmates with symptoms. Both prison systems say that aside from new arrivals, they primarily focus testing on inmates with signs of infection.
Last week, Washington’s prison system took another major step forward by beginning mandatory weekly testing of nearly all staff and contractors. If employees refuse the routine tests, they aren’t allowed back to their job sites.
“We have experienced the deaths of two incarcerated individuals and one staff member to COVID-19 and that is three deaths too many,” reads a memo sent to all Washington prisons staff.
Already, the weekly tests have found several asymptomatic employees who could have unknowingly spread the disease to others, Washington officials say.
In contrast, the Oregon Department of Corrections says it’s up to staff to seek out private testing on their own, if they choose, because the department has no power to force them.
“In other words, mandatory testing would violate labor agreements that are put in place to protect workers' rights and prevent abuse,” reads the Oregon Department’s website.
Angst has risen as Oregon’s system hasn’t been able to squelch months-long outbreaks at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton and Snake River Correctional Institution near the Idaho border in Ontario, where a combined 850 inmates have been infected.
Snake River accounts for 11 of the state’s 16 deaths.
Smaller outbreaks also are ongoing at Coffee Creek Correctional Institution in Wilsonville and Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem. In September inmates from the two prisons were hurriedly packed onto buses, evacuated away from wildfires and forced into even tighter sleeping quarters, sometimes shoulder-to-shoulder on the floor, in what critics describe as a blunder that has fueled the new outbreaks at both prisons.
The Oregonian/OregonLive has reviewed dozens of signed declarations submitted by inmates to Oregon courts outlining their living conditions. The newsroom isn’t using their names because of their concerns of potential retaliation from prison staff for speaking out.
According to inmate accounts:
A 46-year-old inmate with asthma wrote that he shares five toilets with 60 other men and showers two feet apart from the next prisoner.
“I am in a death trap,” he wrote.
A 40-year-old who suffers severe infections from kidney problems wrote that she usually spends her days on her bunk while correctional officers allow other inmates to socialize in the day room without face coverings.
“I am scared to be surrounded by this many people without masks,” she wrote.
Although some inmates say they were denied tests after falling ill, other inmates say they hide symptoms to avoid being thrown into “the hole” — segregated single cells where they say they may be confined for 23 hours a day and denied regular showers and phone calls.
Other inmates have complained that even though the prison system says it’s now providing free soap, that sometimes comes in the form of partially used soap bar remnants that they dig through to find the biggest one with the best chance of producing a lather.
“It’s like a big bowl of nacho chips and you grab one,” said<del> </del>Dr. Mark Baskerville, an attorney and critical care physician at Oregon Health & Science University.
Baskerville estimates he’s interviewed more than 100 inmates by phone. Many of them are women at Coffee Creek who are there because of addictions that fueled theft or other non-violent crimes.
Baskerville believes the state needs to do more to prevent spread within prisons – not just for the vulnerable inmates but everyone in the community. If the virus is allowed to flourish inside prison walls, those outbreaks will eventually seed outbreaks on the outside.
“You still have to realize that these prisons are a risk to everybody,” Baskerville said. “They have the potential to essentially become incubators to the virus. Eventually it is going to get transferred in and out with staff coming and going.”
Above all, he said while it might be unpalatable to some Oregonians to release people sentenced to years of lock-up, he still believes inmates deserve safer living conditions than they’re currently receiving.
Little is known about the circumstances of the 16 inmates who died after testing positive for coronavirus.
Records obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive for 15 of the fatalities show four inmates were serving murder sentences while nine others were convicted of sex crimes, kidnapping or robbery.
One inmate had a short-term, three-year sentence for theft and identity theft crimes. He was scheduled for release in 2022.
When The Oregonian/OregonLive emailed Gov. Kate Brown asking whether she should have considered that last man’s release before he fell fatally ill, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office didn’t directly answer the question. Rather, spokeswoman Liz Merah said the governor receives an updated list of inmates to consider for release every two months.
“(T)he Governor has stated that it is appropriate to release individuals who face significant health challenges should they contract COVID-19” and who don’t “present an unacceptable safety” risk to the community," Merah wrote.
Debate about what Oregon can do better ultimately turns back to masks – a simple safeguard that prison officials have been slow to adopt.
Public health experts say when it’s not possible to keep people at least six feet apart, the next best thing is to cover up.
Washington started requiring all staff and inmates to wear masks in April. Oregon waited until it had a problem on its hands, not setting requirement for staff until July and inmates until August.
By then new infections were already taking off.
In a department-wide email sent in July, prisons Deputy Director Heidi Steward appeared to acknowledge an anti-mask sentiment among some employees.
As cases spiked that month, she pleaded with them to abide by a new mask rule even though she said she knew wearing a mask for an 8-hour shift or 16-hour double shift could be tough.
“I want to acknowledge we each have — and are entitled to — our own thoughts and opinions on face coverings,” Steward wrote in an email first reported by Willamette Week. But Steward said employees who defy orders to wear masks whenever they’re within six feet of others will be sent home without pay and progressive discipline will begin.
“I need your help,” Steward wrote.
Herivel, the Portland lawyer representing inmates, said she doubts the department has cracked down on defiant employees.
“We know of no discipline,” Herivel said. “It doesn’t appear to be enforced at all.”
In late August, a post to the department’s Facebook page drew criticism. The post showed two uniformed employees lifting a pallet of personal protective gear inside a warehouse, but not wearing masks. They appear to be standing five or six feet apart.
“DOC you need to do better by our inmates by enforcing the mask mandate for the corrections officers in your employ,” read one of the scathing comments, written by a wife of a prisoner. “The inmates can’t go out and get covid. So your officers are bringing it in.”
Some inmates also have complained that up until this month they’d only received two single-layer cloth masks. They say the face coverings offer little protection and two wasn’t enough because it takes time to wash and dry the masks at least every other day.
This month the Oregon Department of Corrections announced it’s significantly beefing up mask offerings. Every inmate and employee is slated to immediately receive three N95 masks and more in coming months, according to the department’s website.
Although the department wouldn’t answer The Oregonian/OregonLive’s questions about the medical-grade masks, they appear to be part of a donation of 300,000 that the department received in the spring from a source the department didn’t identify. In a May Facebook post, the department said inmate workers were sewing new elastic straps on the masks because the existing ones “were expired and falling apart.”
The N95 masks couldn’t come at a better time: Cases across the nation are expected to surge to record levels this fall and winter, both inside and outside prisons.
Singh, the executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, is hoping for a turnaround in Oregon’s prisons.
But he said that might not come until there’s been far more suffering and death in the state’s correctional institutions.
“At some point it’s just going to become too morally repulsive to allow this to sustain,” Singh said. “This is all, in a sense, avoidable. There are things we could be doing to ensure that the trajectory we’re on changes.”
(c)2020 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)