Ore. judge orders inmates be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccines

The preliminary injunction orders all Oregon Department of Corrections inmates be offered a vaccine as part of Phase 1A, Group 2

By Jaimie Ding

PORTLAND, Ore. — A judge on Tuesday ordered all inmates in the Oregon prison system to be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccinations — a move that should make prisoners immediately eligible for inoculation.

The preliminary injunction orders all Oregon Department of Corrections inmates be offered a vaccine as part of phase 1A, group 2, of Oregon’s COVID-19 vaccination plan — putting prison inmates in the same category as people living in nursing homes and other congregate care settings.

The order should make prisoners eligible for vaccines now, but it’s not clear if they’ll move ahead of teachers or the elderly.
The order should make prisoners eligible for vaccines now, but it’s not clear if they’ll move ahead of teachers or the elderly. (Photo/Ross William Hamilton of The Oregonian via TNS)

The order should make prisoners eligible for vaccines now, but it’s not clear if they’ll move ahead of teachers or the elderly. But given that the Oregon Health Authority dictates where vaccines are shipped, the state has the ability to redirect doses for prisons.

“This will save an incredible amount of lives,” said Juan Chavez, an Oregon Justice Resource Center attorney who is representing a group of seven inmates.

The order will allow adults in custody to “stand in the same line” as others in congregate living facilities with a high risk of COVID-19 infection, Chavez said.

“As far as jumping the line ahead of anybody, they should’ve been vaccinated already,” he said.

The decision comes after seven inmates at Oregon correctional facilities filed motions Jan. 21 for the federal government to intervene and immediately compel the state to vaccinate all prison inmates against COVID-19. The same inmates first filed a class action lawsuit in federal court last April seeking protection against the spread of COVID-19.

Inmates across the state have described horrid conditions in the state’s correctional facilities as 3,392 cases of COVID-19 and 42 deaths have been confirmed in prisons to date.

In her ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Stacie Beckerman noted state officials had prioritized residents of other types of congregate care settings, such as nursing homes, but bypassed inmates, despite widespread COVID-19 outbreaks in the state’s prisons.

The decision to exclude the state’s prison population from high-tier priority lists demonstrated “deliberate indifference to the serious risk of harm” prisoners face from COVID-19, the judge concluded.

Beckerman was unswayed by the state’s argument that the public interest called for teachers to be vaccinated first, so children could return to school. The judge pointed out the prisoners’ attorneys weren’t asking for inmates to be vaccinated first, just that they be vaccinated at the same time as teachers.

Chavez pointed out that Oregon’s current rate of vaccination is about 12,000 a day — roughly the same size of the state prison population. Any diversion of vaccines would be equivalent to a day’s worth of vaccines administered, compared to the previous plan, which put prisoners behind 900,000 others, he said.

To date, the state has used 65% of its vaccine allotment, according to Oregon Health Authority numbers.


The first vaccinations of Multnomah County Jail inmates began Tuesday, as the county administered vaccines to 108 adults at the Inverness Jail. More inmates will be vaccinated once more doses are available, according to Julie Sullivan-Springhetti, a county spokeswoman.

Sullivan-Springhetti said the county has always planned to treat jails as part of the high-risk congregate settings category for vaccinations.

These vaccinations began as two more outbreaks have been reported in Multnomah County and Josephine County jails in recent days.

There have been 107 cases of COVID-19 and no deaths during the Inverness Jail’s current outbreak, which began Jan. 15, Sullivan-Springhetti said. That’s equivalent to 21% of the current population of 512 inmates.

An ongoing outbreak at the Multnomah County Detention Center also has affected 26 staff and 10 inmates since October.

To prevent further spread at the Inverness Jail, at least two dormitories have been placed in isolation and three others on quarantine, according to the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office.

All inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 have been moved into an isolation dorm for about two weeks. Those who have been exposed to the coronavirus but tested negative are in quarantine for the same amount of time.

Those in quarantine are being tested every few days and anyone with symptoms is offered COVID-19 testing, Sullivan-Springhetti said.

The outbreak has caused delays in court hearings for those in the affected dorms, according to Multnomah Public Defender Michael Rees.

A release hearing for one of his clients was abruptly canceled last week, Rees said, and a remote hearing via video was not rescheduled until Tuesday morning. Rees said he was told the hearing was canceled because his client was in a locked down dorm.

“I think the jail should’ve started taking this seriously ages ago,” Rees said. “People sitting in there are at risk of serious illness and death.”

The Inverness Jail is at about 77% capacity, according to the most recent figures from Sullivan-Springhetti. The county reduced its jail population by 30% near the start of the pandemic due to fewer arrests, early releases of sentenced inmates and stepped-up pretrial releases.

The Josephine County Sheriff’s Office reported 30 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 using rapid testing since Jan. 26. All inmates and staff will be tested again Feb. 8 to verify the results using PCR testing, which uses genetic material.

The OHA, meanwhile, reported 619 new confirmed or presumptive coronavirus cases and 23 more deaths Tuesday.


(c)2021 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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