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COVID-19 Situation Worsens Inside Oregon Prisons

COVID-19 is becoming an increasing risk for inmates, staff and communities surrounding Oregon's prisons.

At least two former inmates at Shutter Creek Correctional Institution on Oregon’s South Coast received positive COVID-19 tests shortly after being released this month, raising concerns that inmates leaving the prison could be spreading the virus through the community.

At least one other inmate was released from the Department of Corrections this week with a positive test result and the wrong county was notified.

The news comes as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases inside the state’s prisons climbed to 101 as of Wednesday, with outbreaks as large as 68 at Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem and seven at Santiam Correctional Institution.

“We are not testing individuals on the way out,” DOC Director Collette Peters said on a May 5 conference call with southern Oregon officials. “That would be a substantial number of tests over time. We release over 400 people every month into the community.”

DOC has tested at least 367 inmates as of Wednesday, though the prison population is more than 14,000 inmates across 14 facilities scattered around the state. There are also at least 28 staff members who have tested positive. The majority of them work at the Oregon State Penitentiary.

Peters also noted that testing only looks at a moment in time and isn’t “magic.” On that same call, prison health officials said even if they tested everyone there’s no guarantee it would identify everyone who has the virus.

The two inmates finished their sentences at Shutter Creek and were released, only to be told they tested positive were asymptomatic, according to an official with the DOC.

For months, prison advocates have been calling on Oregon leaders to consider early release for vulnerable inmates who are near the end of their sentences. Gov. Kate Brown has received details of inmates’ health conditions, age, sentences and crimes that could make them eligible for early release. Ultimately, however, she decided against reducing the state’s prison population.

Court documents filed this week reveal a sense of the fear from adults living behind bars in the midst of a global pandemic. Inmates filed a request for a temporary restraining order asking a judge to force DOC to reduce prison populations and “directing them to take every action within their power to reduce the risk of COVID-19 from further ravaging Oregon Department of Corrections prisoner populations.” A DOC spokeswoman said the agency doesn't comment on pending litigation.

The same inmates filed a lawsuit in April, alleging the agency hasn’t done enough to create social distance inside correctional facilities.

The inmates’ testimonies to the Oregon Justice Resource Center, a legal nonprofit, paint a picture of a patchwork of regulations and varying protocols throughout the state’s 14-prison system.

Chris Mitchell, an inmate at Shutter Creek Correctional Institution, spoke of being reticent to share his symptoms for fear of being transferred to another DOC facility where sick inmates are being sent. It was a sentiment echoed by several adults living in the state’s custody.

At the beginning of March, Aaron Delicino at Snake River Correctional Institution came down with a cough. He wasn’t the only one. “A bunch of other people on my unit also got really sick,” he told the Oregon Justice Resource Center.

After nine days of being sick, a nurse checked his temperature — it fluctuated between 103 and 104 degrees.

“The nurse I saw gave me salt packets and told me to gargle with salt water. That’s the only ‘care’ I got,” Delicino said. “Ultimately I was in my cell for 14 or 15 days before the fever kicked.”

When he asked for a COVID-test, he said, he was told he didn’t need one.

Delicino said he still has a dry cough.

So far, no people have tested positive for COVID-19 at Snake River Correctional Institution, though 23 have been tested. One result is still pending

Leland Benson, a 73-year-old diabetic man who is insulin dependent and living at Deer Ridge Correctional Institution, said he is feeling fine so far but mainly keeps to his cell out of fear.

Near the end of March, a nurse at DRCI, outside of Madras, showed up for work coughing, sneezing and complaining of being ill, he said.

“She had just returned from a cruise. I did not allow her to take my blood test or provide me insulin. Because of her illness, I was not able to access insulin for five or six days,” he said.

This post may be updated.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Conrad Wilson is a reporter and producer covering criminal justice and legal affairs for OPB.
Lauren Dake is a JPR content partner from Oregon Public Broadcasting. Before OPB, Lauren spent nearly a decade working as a print reporter. She’s covered politics and rural issues in Oregon and Washington.