Oregon Prisons Continue to Struggle Amid Pandemic

Despite Oregon prisons currently having 157 inmates across four state prisons that have tested positive for COVID-19, correctional institutions are severely lacking in preventative measures, including testing and social distancing.  

Testing for coronavirus is completely voluntary for inmates, and many are opting out. At Shutter Creek Correctional Institution located in North Bend, 25 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. However, it’s well known within the prison that many more are sick and refusing testing because they know it may result in solitary confinement in a quarantine cell and a loss of privileges.  

An inmate at Shutter Creek, Steven Richardson, was sick for 21 days and did not get tested because he didn’t want to potentially jeopardize his release date, which is only about 90 days away.  

The Oregon Department of Corrections has only tested about 4% of its inmates thus far for the virus.  

Currently, the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem has the state’s largest outbreak with 123 positive cases, 23 tests pending, and 44 positive staff members. And though correctional officers are not required to report their test results to the Department of Corrections, 40 have communicated positive test results to employers.  

As for social distancing, it’s well known that Oregon prisons were not built for inmates to stay six feet apart. Department of Corrections Director Colette Peters and Executive Director of the Oregon Justice Research Center Bobbin Singh both expressed concern about this issue in the legislative hearing which took place last Thursday, May 28.  

Singh in particular is urging that early releases be made possible for inmates who are more vulnerable and also calling for lawmakers to dedicate some emergency funding to transitional housing for these inmates to make the process smoother. As of now, Brown has announced she will not be releasing inmates early due to the coronavirus.  

On Monday, June 1, inmates were shut down by a U.S. magistrate judge, who rejected a bid seeking preliminary injunction against the Department of Corrections. These inmates were calling out against the Department’s failure to do more to protect prisoners. One of these inmates, David Hart, who has lung problems and diabetes, said that Oregon State Penitentiary was forcing inmates to stand directly next to each other, not enforcing the usage of masks, and not sanitizing high-traffic stations, like the telephones until May. 

COVID-19 among Oregon’s prisons is likely to worsen, as transfers between the state’s 14 prisons are still occurring regularly and many are refusing testing. These issues also have implications for society outside of correctional institutions, as about 400 inmates are released back to the community each month.  

By Cara Nixon