Oregon Prison Quarantined as New Cases Emerge Following Wildfire Evacuations

Oregon Prison Quarantined as New Cases Emerge Following Wildfire Evacuations

by Ryan Fatica and Lena Mercer
(Photo Source Carlos Barria, Reuters)

On September 8, the Oregon Department of Corrections announced the evacuation of nearly 3,000 prisoners from four facilities threatened by hazardous wildfire smoke conditions throughout the state. After the prisoners were returned to their home facilities, it now appears that those evacuations may have done little more than expose thousands to possible COVID-19 infection.

The reality of the threat is starting to settle in as 2 new cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed at the Oregon State Correctional Institution (OSCI) in Salem, OR one of the evacuated facilities. The facility has also been raised to a “Tier Four” designation, meaning the entire facility has been placed on a 14-day quarantine. The facility had been previously designated “Tier One.”

Shortly after the rushed nighttime evacuation, several reports surfaced of subpar sanitary conditions, outbreaks of violence, lack of adequate food and medicine, disorganized and chaotic movements of prisoners and a frustrated prison staff. Prisoners were sleeping on mats on the floor six inches from one another, according to reports. 

Prisoners and advocates questioned the safety of evacuating people into cramped conditions at the Oregon State Prison, which was already reporting at least 143 positive cases of the novel coronavirus at the time. For some, the evacuations themselves appeared arbitrary as the distance traveled (a mere four and a half miles for some), did not deliver them safely from the hazardous smoke conditions at all.

On Monday, OSCI began restricting prisoner movement throughout the facility, preventing prisoners from sharing common areas with other units, according to Josh Highberger, Superintendent of the prison. The quarantine is the result of 2 new positive tests of COVID-19. Prior to September 23, OSCI boasted no positive prisoner infections.

According to Jennifer Black, Spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Corrections, the two sick prisoners were immediately transferred to Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, in accordance with Department of Corrections policy. 

The real number of infections at OSCI may be much higher. “Since we got back, a lot of people have been showing symptoms,” said Bryan MacDonald, a prisoner at OSCI who was evacuated earlier this month. 

“When I cough my lungs feel heavy. It feels like somebody standing on my chest when I get a real good cough” MacDonald explained. 

Inside the facility, the concern is growing that without adequate testing those who have brought possible infections back from OSP will be transmitting the virus to others unknowingly. Prisoners have reported that even when presenting symptoms such as coughs and sore throats, they are denied access to COVID-19 testing. 

“They refused to give me a COVID test, which I don’t understand,” MacDonald explained. “It makes no sense whatsoever why you would refuse to give a COVID test for somebody who’s actively showing symptoms. Now they did pull me into medical and then what they did is they took my temperature. And because I did not have a fever, they said I was fine.” 

According to the Department of Corrections website, “If an adult in custody is showing signs and symptoms of flu/COVID-19, including new fever, cough, shortness of breath, chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, and/or new loss of taste or smell​, they will be tested as healthcare providers direct.”

The DOC tracking website lists 238 negative tests having been returned since the beginning of the pandemic in March. With a prison population of 880 and such a small sampling of people tested, prisoners along with their loved ones and advocates fear a new outbreak is looming.

In the last week, the Oregon prison system announced the eighth and ninth deaths from the virus in its facilities, both at the Snake River Correctional Institution. These deaths come in the midst of an overall spike in cases in the state of Oregon, according to data maintained by the Oregon Health Authority and published by the Statesman Journal

COVID-19 cases in the state of Oregon (Image Source: Statesman Journal)

“I wish that we were surprised by this,” said a representative of Siskiyou Abolition Project, an Oregon-based prisoner advocacy group, “but unfortunately this is to be expected when ODOC shuffles people around like this and in particular when ODOC puts over 1400 people into an already almost at capacity facility,” they said, speaking of the mass evacuations earlier this month.  

“As folks are being transferred back to their home facilities, we’re certainly not surprised and absolutely upset to find out that cases are beginning to spread from that, based on what we’re hearing from folks at OSCI.”

“I personally believe that if one person from OSCI catches COVID-19 and dies because they came to OSP and that can be attributed to the fact that this was done just for a budget, that’s murder” MacDonald told Perilous in early September during the evacuations. MacDonald now fears that his prediction may be coming true. 

“I made some really dire predictions the first time we spoke,” said MacDonald. “I’m very disappointed and fearful because we’ve taken steps on that ladder that I predicted and the very top of that ladder consists of people dying. And I very much still hope we don’t get there. You know, I want to be wrong about this, but everything they’ve done, they’re just, they’re taking steps up that ladder as we speak.”