Inmates Brace For Virus Outbreak, While Oregon Considers Early Release
Blue tape — placed 6 feet apart — marks up the floor leading to the cafeteria at Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras, Oregon.
At Eastern Oregon Correctional in Pendleton, use of the yard is restricted to one inmate unit at a time. Inmates wipe down weights after every use at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. All contact sports have been canceled.
In all of the state’s 14 prisons, pat-downs happen from the side now, an effort to avoid any face-to-face contact, for fear of spreading or contracting COVID-19.
Still an unnerving reality remains: Containing the spread of a virus that has already proven it can tear through communal settings — killing and sickening many in its path — remains a Herculean task for Oregon’s prison system.
With state prisons packed and space at a premium, it might be impossible.
As of Tuesday night, there were eight known cases connected to Oregon’s prisons, according to DOC. Three staff members at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem have tested positive for COVID-19. The largest cluster is at the Santiam Correctional Institution in Salem, where three inmates and two staff members contracted the disease.
'A race against time'
“I feel it’s a foregone conclusion, we’re gonna get it. It will be here,” said Joshua “Ga-lo” Vann, who is currently at Oregon State Correctional Institution and has five years left on his sentence for killing a commuter while driving drunk.
The 30-year-old Vann was sentenced to 10 years for the crime. It’s not supposed to be a death sentence, he said at one point in the conversation.
Public health experts and advocates are pushing the state to consider granting compassionate clemency to elderly inmates or those with underlying conditions in an effort to reduce the population in the state’s prisons. Inmates are at higher risk for contracting the virus. They’re in close quarters and efforts like social distancing are nearly impossible.
A group of seven inmates filed a lawsuit against Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and the leaders of the Department of Corrections this week. The inmates have been diagnosed with asthma, are HIV positive or are elderly. They argue the Department of Corrections has only taken “half-measures” to stop the spread of COVID-19 and has “willfully and wantonly ignored the public health threat caused by this global pandemic."
For Oregon, which has one of the oldest prison populations in the nation, the risks appear stark. The Department of Corrections has identified more than 800 inmates it considers vulnerable, but there are just 86 infirmary level beds in the state’s prison system.
Corrections officials said they planned to send inmates to local hospitals if they get so sick the prison cannot treat them. The department has more than 340 medical professionals who provide in-house services to the roughly 14,000 adult inmates in the state’s care.
“If we don’t act now, I predict we will have refrigerated trucks pulling up to prisons to take out bodies just like we have in New York City in the hospitals right now,” said Lisa Hay, Oregon’s federal public defender. “This is really serious. We’re in a race against time. And we need to take action to get people out.”
Hay said she worries prisons won’t count all those who die from COVID-19 because they won’t test all the inmates who die.
As of Tuesday evening, the DOC had reported receiving test results for only 16 of its thousands of inmates. A DOC spokeswoman didn’t know how many tests were pending. At the same time, nearly full prisons make appropriate social distancing a challenge. The state is at 98.7% capacity at its prison for women and 96.5% capacity in the male prisons.
‘Where would they go?’
Gov. Kate Brown said the Oregon’s prison system is very much on her “radar,” but releasing inmates with underlying conditions or those with limited time left on their sentence isn’t simple.
“If we were to release them, where would they go and how would they access medical care?” Brown said in an interview with OPB on Saturday. “I want to make sure we’re not treating them inhumanely … I want to see what the plans would look like for them. There is another population of folks due to be released in the next few weeks or few months that haven’t committed violent offenses.”
On Tuesday, the governor requested information from the state’s Department of Corrections related to the possible early release of inmates. The governor is trying to pinpoint who could be released early to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
She has requested data by Monday on the approximately 1,000 inmates who are within eight weeks of being released, those who have an approved private residence, which is about 300 inmates, and all the inmates over the age of 60. She also asked about nonviolent offenders who are the most vulnerable, served more than 50% of their sentence and are within six to 12 months of being released.
Colette Peters, the director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, echoed the governor’s concerns about releasing prisoners in the middle of a pandemic.
“We often don’t refer to the Department of Corrections as a social service agency,” Peters said. “But what I do know today about those individuals who are vulnerable, I do know they have appropriate shelter, food, clothing and access to medical care right now. And in the community what we’re seeing right now is a lockdown of many of those services.”
The Oregon District Attorneys Association said Tuesday it "strongly opposed mass release of prison inmates" before their sentence was complete.
"Such actions undermine truth in sentencing and discount the safety and security of victims who trusted in a sentence handed down by the court," the organization said in a statement.
Vann, at Oregon State Correctional Institution, said inmates watched with an uneasy eye when inmates from Santiam — where several people have tested positive for the virus — were transferred to his facility. Inmates are still being transferred between prisons, although at a slower rate than normal, according to Peters.
On average, Oregon state’s prison system receives 400 new inmates every month. That number has dipped only slightly during the pandemic. State prisons are required by law to accept new inmates from the county jails.
Unlike prisons, some county jails in Oregon have released inmates to reduce populations. The Oregon Health Authority said its data doesn’t track cases inside jails, so it's unclear how the virus may be spreading in those institutions.
Vann said his fellow inmates have expressed concerns they would be locked away in solitary confinement if they become sick enough to warrant quarantine.
“I already know people who say, ‘I have a fever and I feel achy, but I’m not going to say anything,’” Vann said.
He said the prisons will also use quick, punitive methods to lock down inmates as the virus spreads.
“They will take everything away and lock people down,” he said. ”Of course you want to protect the precious days you have to go outside or make a call to your family before you’re cut off from the world.”
Department of Corrections officials confirmed inmates could be quarantined in solitary confinement, but added they would still have access to the same services as the general population.
There is recent evidence to suggest Oregonians’ effort to social distance and stay home could be working. The most recent modeling showed at the current rate the hospital system may be capable of handling any patients who contract the novel coronavirus.
But Sgt. Clyde Skipper, who has worked for the corrections department for 25 years, put it bluntly: “Prisons in general aren’t designed for what we are dealing with.”
At Santiam Correctional Institution, where Skipper works and where there have been positive tests, men sleep 120 to a room in bunk beds. It’s a large dormitory type setting. Other prisons in the state system have cell blocks where there are often two inmates to a room.
Inmate work crews are now charged with regularly sanitizing the tables. Phones are being wiped down, prison officials said. And inmates are reminded to wash their hands. During meal time, inmates are spaced out at the tables. Visitors have been banned. People spread out during chapel services. Several classes have been canceled. Everyone is trying to follow the guidelines — but in prison, the guidelines are also impossible to follow fully.
“As it pertains to 6 feet, there’s not an actual mathematical way where you could have everyone 6 feet apart,” Skipper said.
A few of the inmates seeking release have had their names before the governor for more than a year. Aliza Kaplan, a professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland who also represents clients in DOC’s custody, wrote a letter in late March asking the governor to commute three of those inmates' sentences.
“Now their cases become more urgent,” she said. “There are dozens and dozens of other people that would meet a similar criteria that no one has written a case for, or maybe they have. Maybe they’re sitting on her desk too. I'm not sure.”
Kaplan wants to see DOC to do more. On Tuesday, Kaplan said she received a call from the governor’s office. She plans to commute the sentences of two medically vulnerable women.
“I hope that we are really lucky and that this doesn't happen in our prisons,” she said. “But we’re either doing everything to stop this virus and save lives, or we’re not.”
'Where I get emotional'
Advocacy groups in Washington state have also been pressing Gov. Jay Inslee to consider releasing some inmates early to lower the prison population. The California Department for Corrections and Rehabilitation has moved toward releasing thousands of nonviolent offenders early.
But not all prisons have taken steps before the coronavirus has spread inside. In Louisiana — one of the hardest hit parts of the country — five inmates have died while incarcerated. Another 38 inmates and four staff members have contracted the virus.
Lynn James-Jackson has had some tough conversations with her husband recently. Jackson’s partner, Tacoma Jackson, is at the Oregon State Penitentiary and has heart issues and Crohn’s disease.
“Our concern as a family is whether he’s going to make it,” James-Jackson said.
“This is where I get emotional,” she said. “Having those conversations are the hard ones, because that’s his reality.”
Her 45-year-old husband has been trying to stay in his cell and only eat meals he can purchase from the commissary, she said.
“He doesn't have a mask. He doesn't have gloves. The guards are positive, there are guards coming up positive down there,” she said.
“Right now, I feel like I’m the voice of many, many family members and loved ones that have a son, uncle or grandfather that’s in that prison and going through the same thing.”
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