Lawyers: Ore. mismanaged inmates during wildfire evacuations

Attorneys said inmates with different security levels were mixed, some didn't get their medication on time and no meals were served for nearly 24 hours

By Maxine Bernstein
The Oregonian

WILSONVILLE, Ore. — The state mismanaged its evacuation of 3,439 inmates who were moved in the last week from four minimum- and medium-security prisons in the Willamette Valley to prisons in Salem and Madras due to wildfire smoke, their attorneys said Monday.

Inmates with different security levels were mixed, leading to a rash of fights, the lawyers said. Guards were unprepared and used pepper spray to respond to rioting, adding the toxic chemical to prisons already filled with smoke from nearby fires, they said.

Inmates and family members have reported
Inmates and family members have reported "inhumane" conditions at several facilities since fire evacuations started last week. (Photo/Brooke Herbert of The Oregonian via TNS)

Inmates also didn’t get their medication on time, they said, and no meals were served for nearly 24 hours for women prisoners transferred out of Coffee Creek Correctional Institution.

Some inmates were forced to sleep on the floor, with little social distancing and increased risk of the coronavirus, according to family members.

Women transported in the middle of the night from Coffee Creek Correctional Institution sat on buses for hours, forcing them to urinate in their pants without access to bathrooms.

“Women were peeing in cups and throwing tampons and feces out the buses,” said Rod Richardson, whose wife Tammy Saylor was among those moved from the women’s prison in Wilsonville to Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras. Once at Deer Ridge, she had to sleep on metal bed springs for hours before mattresses arrived, he said.

A group of attorneys representing inmates urged Gov. Kate Brown to release those who are medically vulnerable and are six months away from release.

“It appears as if there wasn’t a plan for this,” said attorney Tara Herivel, who described the Oregon Department of Corrections actions as extremely haphazard.

More than 180 habeas corpus court cases are pending across the state by inmates already arguing that the prison conditions are unsafe, increasing their risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Lawyers are expected to incorporate the latest prison evacuations and changes into those cases, pointing to the altered, deteriorating conditions as further examples of alleged “deliberate indifference” to inmates' medical conditions and safety, Herivel said.

The Corrections Department “has not only abused and mistreated our clients and other Oregonians in prison, they have exposed them to a mass COVID contraction environment,” she wrote to state officials.

Jennifer Black, spokeswoman for the Corrections Department, said the agency recognizes that “life at some of our institutions is not ideal for those who live and work at them” because of the wildfire emergency.

“However, life and safety are our first priority and we will return to normal operations as soon as conditions allow.”

Inmates from the Oregon State Correctional Institution, the Santiam Correctional Institution and Mill Creek Correctional, which are all in Salem and sit closest to the mouth of the Santiam Canyon, were moved to the Oregon State Penitentiary, also in Salem, last week. The inmates from Mill Creek and Santiam are now back at those prisons, according to Black.

The Corrections Department has extensive emergency preparedness plans that cover evacuations, mainly for a potential Cascadia earthquake, Black said. The state faced “unique circumstances” it couldn’t predict with the latest wildfires raging in the state and smoke conditions, she said.

“So parts of our plan did not go as smoothly as we would have liked,” Black said.

For example, the buses transferring women inmates out of Coffee Creek couldn’t make planned restroom stops because many of them were closed due to wildfires, she said. Meals and medications weren’t provided on a normal schedule as well, she said.

“We know and understand this was a huge issue and will make significant changes during the return trips,” Black said. “During an emergency, operations do not run as efficiently as normal.”

There also were several “altercations” among inmates at the Oregon State Penitentiary last week, often during mealtimes when inmates from different facilities had to share the same area, Black said. No stabbing occurred as some inmates had suggested, she said. The state prison staff is working with the Office of Inspector General to identify potential conflicts between inmates and make appropriate moves to cut down on any fights, she said.

Men housed in the medium security facility at Deer Ridge Correctional Institution had to be moved to the empty minimum security facility at the prison to make room for the arriving women inmates from Coffee Creek, Black said.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, the governor has released 57 inmates early, the Corrections Department confirmed.

Attorneys representing Oregon inmates said that number is far below the steps taken in California and Washington state to reduce prison populations during the pandemic.

On Aug. 25, Brown asked the Corrections Department to provide her with a list of adults in custody who are medically vulnerable to COVID-19 or within two months of release who meet certain criteria. If they are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, have served at least 50% of their sentence for a non-violent crime, have a good record of conduct for the past year, a suitable housing plan upon release and don’t present an unacceptable safety or security risk, they’re likely to face early release, the governor wrote. She asked the department for a list of adults who meet the criteria by Sept. 18.

“While DOC has acted quickly to meet the threat presented by COVID-19 and calibrated its approach based on the available evidence, there are limits to the ability to practice physical distancing in a correctional setting,” Brown wrote in August, before the wildfires presented new challenges.

Speaking on a Zoom call organized by their lawyers, relatives of inmates spoke of the conditions their loved ones have faced in the last week.

Lynn James-Jackson, said her husband Tecuma Jackson was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and has suffered burning in his chest, throat and eyes from the smoke and soot seeping into the Oregon State Penitentiary. Tecuma Jackson, 46, has spent 21 years in custody on robbery, kidnapping and burglary convictions.

He wrote to his wife that men are sleeping on the floor, maybe two feet apart from one another.

“All of the windows are open, and the industrial fans are blowing. Hell, we might as well be sleeping outside in the middle of this crap,” he wrote, according to the correspondence shared with The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Another inmate at Deer Ridge on Monday called their lawyer to complain that his dorm was thick with smoke and men suffering from asthma attacks and migraines were getting yelled at when they asked for help.

Some of the women transferred to Deer Ridge hadn’t eaten for nearly 24 hours. They protested the conditions, some throwing tables or breaking chairs, according to inmates and their relatives.

Chris Gillespie said his wife Mari-Teresa Gillespie was moved from Coffee Creek by bus to Deer Ridge. She has two and a half more months to serve on strangulation and tampering with a witness convictions.

“The building that they’re now in has more smoke in it than the one that they’e left,” he said.


A look at the inmates who were evacuated:

  • Total number of evacuated adult inmates: 3,439
  • Deer Ridge Correctional Institution – 766 (The male inmates were moved from medium security housing to the empty minimum security facility at Deer Ridge to open up the medium security housing for the women inmates arriving from Coffee Creek.)
  • Coffee Creek Correctional Facility – 1,303
  • Mill Creek Correctional Facility, Oregon State Correctional Institution, and Santiam Correctional Institution – 1,370


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