Eastern Oregon Correctional Institute, Pendleton, Oregon
August 17, 2020- ongoing
by Lena Mercer
On July 25, a crowd of friends and family of those incarcerated at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institute (EOCI) in Pendleton, Oregon gathered outside the facility. They rallied to demand better access to their loved ones along with their release in response to COVID-19. Infection outbreaks have been sweeping through Oregon Department of Corrections facilities since March.
On August 17, a hunger strike was initiated by those held in administrative segregation–a controversial form of punishment for rule infractions inside the facility. Families and prisoners alike are demanding transparency, justice and access to basic medical care inside a facility quickly filling with positive COVID-19 cases.
According to a press release announcing the strike, “a multi-racial group of prisoners housed in solitary confinement at EOCI” went on hunger strike both in response to the long-term COVID-19 pandemic reaching deathly proportions in the facility and the specific use of solitary confinement as a punitive measure.
The hunger strikers demands include:
1. Immediate Transfer of Steven Corbett SID#12786124 to a hospital that can provide him with the lifesaving medical care he needs,
2. Allow the purchase of basic hygiene and cleaning supplies upon arrival to solitary,
3. Immediate release of everyone who has been placed in solitary confinement for a non-violent rule violation and a permanent end to the use of solitary confinement for all non-violent rule violations,
4. One call a week for all people in solitary confinement, and an immediate end to the “green card” system which allows correctional officers to arbitrarily deny communication to loved ones on the outside.
The strike comes at a moment when EOIC is deadlocked in a viscous quarantine cycle. The facility is on what the Department of Corrections (DOC) calls a “Tier 4” lockdown, a designation created by the Agency Operation Center along with Department of Corrections Health Services that restricts movement of the entire prisoner population during a COVID-19 outbreak.
The tier system creates both an escalation and de-escalation strategy to bring COVID-19-related health concerns back under manageable control. In a Tier 4 lockdown, the entire prisoner population is placed under quarantine and staff are asked “heightened employee screening” questions to identify potential symptoms of COVID-19. According to facility protocol, guards are not screened for fevers when they show up for work until the facility is placed on a Tier 4 lockdown.
According to data gathered by the Marshall Project, the week of May 13 was the first real showdown with the virus in the state prison system. In a state where prisoners have a 653 percent higher infection rate than the overall population, the few safeguards put in place came too late. On May 20, the first ODOC prisoner died of the Novel Coronavirus, that we know of. While he passed away at an area medical facility, the unnamed prisoner was housed in the Oregon State Prison (OSP) in Salem, Oregon–the facility with the largest COVID-19 outbreak at the time. Two other prisoners in the ODOC system have since died from the virus, according to statistics maintained by the agency.
Since May, EOCI has slowly caught up in both numbers and accusations of neglect. Both EOCI and the Snake River Correctional Institution are currently 2 facilities out of 14 languishing in the Tier 4 designation.
EOCI was designated Tier 1, the lowest level on the tier strata, until July 7 when it was bumped to Tier 4. According to EOCI Supervising Executive Assistant Ron Miles, the escalation in designation came after the first people in custody tested positive on July 6. It is unclear if these were in fact the first cases of COVID-19 in the facility, as incarcerated people often do not report symptoms due to the fear of being sent to an isolation unit. EOCI has a 99 single-occupancy cell Disciplinary Segregation Unit, where many currently housed in the facility would describe their confinement as a type of torture.
A prisoner in the EOCI chronicled their presumed fight with COVID-19 in an article entitled “Exposed“ that was circulated in a prison newsletter. “The pain that developed in my body made me feel as though I’d been hit by a truck,” he wrote. “I lost my appetite and didn’t eat a bite for five days. I slept in and out of consciousness like some weird dream mixed with a shitty reality.”
Prisoners across the DOC system have decried the slow movement of prison officials on the quickly spreading pandemic. “When I was finally able to see a nurse,” the prisoner explained, “I had already lost 10 pounds. I was told that I was ‘definitely sick’ then given a mask along with some pills and told to stay in my cell as much as possible, as to not infect the others (except my cellie apparently).”
Many outside agencies, human rights organizations and prisoner advocates have decried solitary confinement as a form of torture.
EOCI has 1,600 beds and 19 housing units. Miles spoke of the preparation for the pandemic as one of those housing units was designated a medical isolation unit. “There are 30 total cells on the unit, 16 of the cells are designated for AICs [adults in custody] pending test results and 14 cells are designated for those AICs that test positive.”
As of this writing, 215 people have tested positive for COVID-19 at the facility and 27 are currently being held in “medical isolation.”
“Medical isolation” is the term used to designate those who have tested positive for the virus or are presumed positive. “Ideally, each quarantined individual would be quarantined in a single cell with solid walls and a solid door that closes,” according the definition illustrated by the DOC tiered protocol page.
The first confirmed COVID-19 death in custody was reported on Thursday, August 21. The victim was between the ages of 60 and 70 according to reporting by the Elkhorn Media group. It is unclear how many people have succumb to the virus inside the facility since the outbreak began in March. Accounts from prison officials are often countered by eyewitness reports from inside the facility.
Throughout the DOC, protocols on de-escalating a tier designation are references to when “six feet of social distancing cannot be adhered to” in regards to when staff at these facilities must wear face masks. This comes into contradiction with the CDC designated guidelines on dealing with COVID-19 among the incarcerated.
On it’s Detention Guidance website, the CDC encourages all “staff and incarcerated/detained persons to wear a cloth face covering as much as safely possible, to prevent transmission of SARS-CoV-2 through respiratory droplets that are created when a person talks, coughs, or sneezes”. It goes on to express that “because many individuals with COVID-19 do not have symptoms, it is important for everyone to wear cloth face coverings in order to protect each other” as well as the suggested 6 feet of social distancing.
The outbreak of COVID-19 has placed additional pressure on pre-existing tensions within the facility regarding DOC policies that prisoners say are unjust.
One of the hunger strikers, Christopher Gonzalez, was able to contact outside support and relayed to them that “on the 17th I was pulled out to speak with [Lieutenants]. They said they didn’t see things changing with the phones anytime soon though they acknowledged that the green card system was flawed…They went on to say that all this strike will do is bring me negative attention from administration and cause me to catch a write up for attempting to ‘extort’ the superintendent”.
A large portion of the strikers’ demands center around communication in and out of the facility. Family members as well as those inside rely on phone calls to stay abreast of the COVID-19 epidemic inside as well the general workings of the facility and health of the people housed there. From the hungers striker’s press release “When we, as family members, call the prison we are given incomplete information and we are lied to. The only way we really know what is going on inside is to be able to talk to our loved ones on the phone.”
According to reporting from the East Oregonian on the hunger strike, the green card system is an incentive-based system determined by presiding lieutenants on each cell block. The East Oregonian also reported that prisoners kept in solitary are offered only pencil and paper and can earn other “privileges” such as a phone call to a concerned loved one through “good behavior”.
Recently, the Oregon Dept of Corrections contracted CenturyLink to provide prisoners with phone and tablet access among other media. According to the CenturyLink website, each 10 minute phone call that a prisoner may be allowed to make once deemed eligible on the green card system will cost about $1, if they want to make a video call, it is a little less than $6 for a 28 minute call. People held in administrative segregation do not have access to the tablets that are required for video calls.
According to Rose Harriot, an organizer on the outside supporting the strikers, Gonzalez has been denied access to mail and funds sent from the outside. As a result, he has also not been able to notarize the legal files he needs to submit.
On the second day of the strike, Gonzalez sent a letter saying that “he wasn’t hungry yet” but that his “heart is racing a bit.” Harriot expressed concern that the strikers were not weighed at the beginning of the strike as is often standard to monitor to health concerns. “I fear they are being force fed,” she said.
Visits to all Oregon DOC facilities have been suspended since March 12 of this year due to the risks involved. Letters and phone calls remain the only sources of contact that loved ones, family members and broader communities can have with those currently locked-up.
Under the former communications provider, GTL-Telmate, prisoners not locked into solitary were allowed two free 5 minute phone calls per week during the COVID-19 pandemic. This stop-gap communication measure was presented on a 30 day trial period until March 18, with the possibility of continuance. When CenturyLink became the DOC’s communication provider, instead of continuing the free phone call policy, they waived the registration fees, leaving all other fees in tact. CenturyLink declined to comment when asked about the continuation of free phone calls.
Currently for a family member to deposit $25 worth of communication access through their website, it costs them $2. For every every $20 dollars deposited into the the Trust Account for things like commissary, it costs the person depositing the funds between nearly $3 and $4 dollars.