Columbia River Correctional Facility, Portland, Oregon
April 7, 2020

After a two day soap and paper towel shortage, mixed with the lack of accurate information and resources given to them by prison officials related to COVID-19, prisoners in two of the facility’s 80-person units clashed with guards, taking over the units for 3 hours. The guards were forced to retreat into locked offices and put the entire facility on lockdown.

Steven Stroud, a prisoner, in a phone call with local media said, “It blew up here last night [April 7th]…People are tired of having inadequate cleaning supplies, of not being given masks, of being afraid to report feeling sick [sick people are reportedly being quarantined in solitary confinement cells], of not having enough soap. It was a powder keg.” Stroud, who has an auto-immune disease is among an estimated 800 Oregon prisoners who have heath conditions that put them at risk of contracting a more severe case of COVID-19.

Another anonymous prisoner, speaking on the lack of mitigating strategies to quell the virus’ spread said,  “Guards were telling us that we couldn’t wear masks. The [two units] stood up and said, ‘No, you don’t get to dictate our health. We outnumber you and we’re not going to take it anymore.’ Essentially, they forced the guards out of their units for about three hours.”

CRCI is a minimum security facility and, according to Stroud, is not used to confrontations. “We’re in a minimum security facility, which means people aren’t in here for very long… and you don’t have the same politics between guards and inmates that you have elsewhere. That being said, we have people here who are scared and worried—just like everyone on the outside—and they want answers.”

According to Stroud, staff inside are expressing similar fears of the virus spreading due to the confined space of the prison, and feeling unable to give reliable information to prisoners about how to counter the potential spread. Staff are nonetheless getting preferential treatment around social distancing in comparison to prisoners, Stroud again, “All of the precautions I’ve seen introduced around social distancing… they have nothing to do with us. Anything that’s being done now is for the staff, if inmates happen to benefit from it, that’s not intentional.”

Even so, according to AFSCME–the union that represents corrections officers–spokesmen Tom Woolery,  “A prison is a place where it’s a challenge to do social distancing. And it’s impossible for corrections officers who work security to telework.”

Along with all this, there are calls for early release of Oregon prisoners who are nearing the end of their sentences, as well as those most vulnerable to the virus. On April 6, seven prisoners from four different facilities in Oregon filed a lawsuit against several state prison officials, accusing them of not adequately protecting prisoners from COVID-19–a form of cruel and unusual punishment, they say.  They also allege there is no way to self-impose the recommended six-foot social distancing guidelines in any of the prisons they are incarcerated in. Just a day later, Gov. Kate Brown requested information from Oregon DOC “related to the possible early release of inmates.”

“We’re hoping that’s a first step,” said the previously quoted anonymous inmate. “It feels like the state is gambling with our lives. We can’t take that.”

Stroud says that he and others are hopeful for some kind of resolution as well, but he said “if things don’t change, they’re looking at creating a situation that will create very big security issues. What happened [last night] will look paltry in comparison. If the state needs a sign that they have to take action, this is it.”

Citations:

Inmate Protest Over COVID-19 Response Forces North Portland Prison Into Lockdown“, Portland Mercury, April 8, 2020

Prison inmates sue Oregon officials over alleged failures to protect them from coronavirus“, The Oregonian, April 6, 2020

Gov. Kate Brown considering early release of Oregon prisoners amid coronavirus spread“, The Oregonian, April 8, 2020

Q&A: Two Oregon Prison Inmates on Facing COVID-19 Behind Bars“, Portland Mercury, April 3rd, 2020

Article published: 4/12/20
Header photo source: Portland Mecury