As Prison COVID-19 Deaths Rise Rapidly, Inmates’ Relatives, Advocates Sound Alarm
So far, at least 41 Oregon prisoners have died during the pandemic after testing positive for the virus.
For more than two decades, Juan Daniel Tristan was an inmate, most recently at the Oregon State Penitentiary. On Dec. 26, he was admitted to Salem Hospital.
“He was having multi-organ failure,” said Felishia Ramirez, his niece.
According to Ramirez, when Tristan arrived at the emergency room he had pneumonia, sepsis and tested positive for COVID-19.
“As they were trying to stabilize him as he was arriving, he coded, so his heart stopped,” Ramirez said. “They did CPR on him for 10 minutes and they were able to bring him back. But 10 minutes is a long time to be without oxygen to your brain.”
Ramirez said the family had no idea he was sick, let alone sent to the emergency room.
The Department of Corrections declined an interview for this story, citing ongoing litigation. In a statement, prison officials said that for security reasons it’s the agency’s practice to not notify family if an inmate is sent to the hospital.
For weeks, Tristan lay unconscious. While his condition improved, he relied on a ventilator and dialysis machine to keep him alive.
An inmate who knew Tristan tracked down a friend, who finally connected with the family Jan. 18 and told them Tristan had been taken out of the prison. For days, Ramirez and other family members called the prison trying to find out what happened, where he was and if he was even alive. They eventually connected with medical staff at the Salem Hospital.
“Thankfully, I got to be there when he took his last breath,” Ramirez sobbed. “But we got one day with him. Just one day … He was in the hospital for almost a month and nobody — it just breaks my heart … Nobody deserves that.”
Tristan died Jan. 22. He was 58 years old.
His death was just one of 19 in this month, as Oregon prisons have reached a crisis point in how they deal with COVID-19. So far, at least 41 people have died in prison custody during the pandemic after testing positive for the virus. Oregon has one of the oldest prison populations in the country, making it all the more vulnerable to the pandemic.
Compared to Oregon, 10 inmates have died in Washington state’s prisons, and that’s despite having a larger prison population.
Ramirez blames the prison staff for her uncle’s death.
“Someone should have noticed, a guard, anybody, that he was not well,” she said. “Not once did anybody make an initiative to get him that medical treatment.”
People in custody, their families and defense attorneys told OPB they can clearly see the Oregon prison system is overwhelmed by the virus. Some of those critics point to an April decision as a key moment that led to the current crisis.
At the time, the Department of Corrections estimated it would need to release 5,800 inmates to create enough social distance to slow the pandemic — roughly 40% of Oregon’s prisoners. They also outlined other scenarios with fewer releases.
The Oregon District Attorneys Association pressured Gov. Kate Brown against releasing inmates early, saying it opposed the move because it was potentially damaging to crime victims, despite public health concerns. In the days that followed, Brown was asked at a news conference whether she would release inmates early.
“Do I plan to early release adults in custody as a result of the COVID-19 crisis?” the governor said. “The answer is no.”
In an interview with OPB in early April, Brown expressed concern about where inmates would go if they were released early and whether they’d have access to medical care.
The governor later modified her stance for older or non-violent inmates. To date, she’s approved early releases for about 300 prisoners, a figure well below most of DOC’s proposed scenarios that would’ve allowed for more social distancing in the state’s prisons.
Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, who chairs the state Senate Judiciary Committee, said more should’ve been done to release vulnerable people from custody early in the pandemic.
“We had an opportunity there that could’ve played out differently,” Prozanski said.
Some inmates are worried and say they’re still living with the effects of the governor’s decision.
“Here at Coffee Creek (Correctional Facility), there’s no more room for the girls with COVID, so they’re now housing them with general population,” said Anna Marie Valdez, an inmate at the Wilsonville prison.
Earlier this month, she said inmates who had tested positive for COVID-19 were no longer being sent to quarantine units because there are so many cases.
“I’m in general population right now and there’s a girl who’s positive for COVID,” Valdez said. “She’s on this unit.”
Just a few minutes into the call, Valdez said a guard told get off the phone and back to her cell.
The Department of Corrections said since Jan. 9, inmates in Coffee Creek who have COVID-19 have been living with or near people who have not tested positive.
“In our celled units, [inmates] who test positive and are asymptomatic are staying in their cell,” DOC said in a statement. “This means they stay in their cell and are given separate dayroom time to make phone calls and shower than the rest of the population.”
The deadliest outbreak so far has been at the Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla.
In early December, several COVID-19 positive inmates were transferred from the Deer Ridge prison near Madres to the medical isolation unit at Two Rivers. Corrections officials say there were more COVID-19 cases at Deer Ridge than the prison could handle.
Prison officials have said the inmates were kept separate, but after the transfers, the number of cases at Two Rivers grew significantly.
In a statement Monday, the Corrections Department said it had since transferred some inmates from Two Rivers to another prison to create more space for those inmates who are sick and need to quarantine. One person in custody at Deer Ridge died this month.
Last week, attorney Tara Herivel, who represents more than 300 prison inmates across the state, received an email from an attorney at the Oregon Department of Justice telling her one of her clients had tested positive for the virus.
Herivel said the medical staff didn’t tell her client, a 79-year-old man who is medically vulnerable. He was allowed to walk through the prison and return to his cell with his cellmate.
“Instead of telling my client he was positive and taking the immediate steps to isolate him from spreading to anyone else, [they] told their lawyer at DOJ he was positive, who told me later and I told my client he was positive, hours later, after all of this contact he was allowed to have with other prisoners,” Herivel said.
“We can see exactly why the pandemic is out of control in these prisons. It’s DOC created conditions, by failing or completely ignoring CDC guidelines for almost, what, 10 months now?”
The Oregon Justice Resource Center’s Juan Chavez is representing a group of inmates in a lawsuit against prison officials and Brown, who he said ignored safety guidance from health officials in favor of the “easy politics” that come with being “tough on crime.”
Chavez argued the string of recent deaths is proof that the state needs to reexamine how it treats people who are incarcerated.
“We looked at the system that we built and said, ‘why change it?’,” he said. “Why even now, in a pandemic when people’s lives are on the line, why would we change this system? And it was a colossal mistake,” he said.
On Jan. 21, that same group of inmates filed an emergency motion in federal court asking the judge to force the state to give prison inmates vaccines immediately.
So far, the prison system has vaccinated more than 1,300 inmates, but most were the results of a “misunderstanding” over guidance from state health officials rather than an official policy.
Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting.