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Thousands Of Inmates Quarantined In Eastern Oregon Prison In COVID-19 Outbreak

An incarcerated man works at Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario, Ore., during a community event Aug. 25, 2019.
An incarcerated man works at Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario, Ore., during a community event Aug. 25, 2019.

More than 3,100 inmates at the Snake River Correctional Institution outside Ontario are under quarantine because of an outbreak of COVID-19 at the facility.

Attorneys say they're unable to reach their clients, many of whom have upcoming hearings.

That puts more than 5,400 inmates, roughly one-third of the state's prison population, on lockdown, unable to leave their cells. Another serious outbreak of the disease remains at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.

Inmates in prisons, jails and detention centers are at greater risk for contracting the virus because they live in crowded, communal settings.

"I can tell you we have had seven staff and two adults in custody test positive for COVID-19 at SRCI," said Department of Corrections spokeswoman Betty Bernt. "[Adults in custody] have access to their attorneys by telephone on their unit."

But some attorneys say that hasn't been their experience.

Tara Herivel is representing clients at the prison in post-conviction review trials as well as in habeas corpus petitions, which are often considered pressing or urgent.

"I contacted the prison and learned no legal calls would be allowed until July 11, at the earliest, due to COVID," Herivel said. "As counsel, we must have access to our clients and are being deprived by [the Oregon Department of Corrections] and the [Department of Justice], who endorse this lack of access consistently."

"Even if the prison is on lockdown due to the virus, DOC must come up with ways during this pandemic to allow attorneys to speak with their clients with few limitations," said professor Aliza Kaplan, who directs a legal clinic at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland and represents clients in DOC's custody. "The facilities should be doing more, not less during this difficult time to make sure that all inmates have access to their attorneys on their pending legal matters."

Across the state's prison system, at least 180 inmates and 59 staff have contracted COVID-19 as of Saturday. One inmate died in May.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Conrad Wilson is a reporter and producer covering criminal justice and legal affairs for OPB.