Commentary: Oregon Has a Prison Health Crisis

Food. Water. Air. People can’t live without them. During the pandemic, they can’t live without social distancing,  either. For most people, getting hold of all four isn’t that much of a problem. If you’re a guest of the Oregon Department of Corrections, though, it’s all too easy to run short of at least one. 

Gov. Kate Brown has commuted the sentences of 57 inmates and says she is considering releasing more – between 350 and 400 more – whose sentences are close to completion or who are medically vulnerable. People who care about prison inmates like their families, their lawyers, and people who just feel the need to stick up for them, are asking for more.  

Many people in Oregon say DOC conditions can’t be made tolerable unless at least half of the state’s prisoners are released. The rationale for such a large number is as simple as it is stark: no matter what prisoners have been convicted of, none of them were sentenced to death by fire or by COVID-19 

The double disaster now facing everyone in Oregon is much worse for those whose lives have been restricted by the state. In a list of demands released on Sept. 15, prisoner advocates say it is urgent to release prisoners, improve physical conditions, and provide education and other services which will enable former convicts to re-enter society and stay out of trouble.  

The challenges aren’t small: the all-male population of Salem’s Oregon State Penitentiary, the largest prison in the state, has been joined by the inmates of three other prisons which were threatened by advancing fire. 1,300 others have been put in the Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras. Crowding has resulted. There is increased risk of infection. And fights are breaking out, including in the long lines waiting to use the few telephones, which are a lifeline to the outside world. Even food, water, and prescribed medications are delivered irregularly or as the DOC’s Jennifer Black put it, “not on their normal schedule.”   

Besides not having adequate social distance and sanitary supplies, some prisoners are being forced to work while sick, increasing chances of their infecting others.  

Conditions at Deer Ridge led to prisoners staging a demonstration on Sept. 11 and 12. Prisoners at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton staged a hunger strike to protest conditions there. So did inmates at Lane County Corrections Division Eugene and the Multnomah County Detention Center in Portland, which are not part of the state DOC.  

Moved to other prisons to escape smoke, some prisoners said the smoke they were exposed to is actually worse than what they fled.   

“Everyone is sick, has sore throats, is coughing constantly, their eyes are burning,” said Erica Gibson-Pitts, whose son is in OSP. “There’s no relief.”  

“This pandemic highlights the public health crisis that is mass incarceration,” said Juan Chavez, an attorney working for the Oregon Justice Resource Center. “Prisons are the epitome of a congregated environment: a landlocked cruise ship that can’t come to port.”   

When “stacked on top of each other and in unsafe, unsanitary conditions,” prisons are perfect for the spread of COVID-19, according to Chavez. The state should have acted faster at the beginning of the pandemic, Chavez said, releasing prisoners to allow for social distance and issuing masks to prisoners and staff.  

“Prisons do not keep us safe. We need to divest from the institutions that have failed us and invest in ones that have shown the potential to be successful,” said Rose Harriot, partner of an inmate at EOCI.  

John M. Burt