“A Dumping Ground of COVID Cases”: Blackouts, Protests, and Outbreaks at Oregon’s Two Rivers Prison

“A Dumping Ground of COVID Cases”: Blackouts, Protests, and Outbreaks at Oregon’s Two Rivers Prison

By MG Belka

Prisoners at Two Rivers Correctional Institution (TRCI) are sounding the alarm as a deadly COVID-19 outbreak has spread throughout the facility. Negligent prison staff, and crumbling infrastructure are leading to unnecessary deaths and a public health crisis on the inside, prisoners say. 

Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) officials have reported that the outbreak at TRCI, a medium-security prison in Umatilla on the banks of the Oregon side of the Columbia River, has caused fourteen deaths and over 800 total cases since the start of December. The facility has now overtaken Snake River Correctional Institute as the site of the state’s worst outbreak.

“A Dumping Ground of COVID Cases”

The first case of the virus at TRCI was reported on Nov. 16, and the full-blown outbreak began less than a month later. On Dec. 10, the Oregon Department of Corrections transferred ten people infected with the virus from Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras to the medical wing at TRCI. 

The numbers soon exploded, and testimony from prisoners, as well as their loved ones and outside activists, suggest that officials at TRCI may have simply given up trying to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. 

“They’re not even close to properly trained to handle COVID,” said Morgan, whose partner is incarcerated at TRCI and tested positive for the virus earlier this month. “They’re not following any of the rules that we’re told to follow on the outside. The employees are the ones that brought it in, but they’re not taking things seriously.”

A cell block at the Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla County in 2014. (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian/OregonLive)

Morgan’s partner, who asked to remain anonymous, said that half of his unit at TRCI tested positive. The other half declined to get tested, because a positive test means a week in an isolation unit. That means 23 hours a day alone in a tiny cell with no contact with anyone–not even a phone call. Prisoners in other facilities have spoken out about their unwillingness to be housed in isolation away from familial contact and often with less or no medical supervision. 

Jason Bennett, who is currently held in a different unit than Morgan’s partner, also reported negligent conditions at TRCI following a separate outbreak in his housing unit. Bennett said medical staff at TRCI are either unable or unwilling to follow any COVID-19 testing protocols beyond the bare minimum requirements.

“They’ll do their rounds with a temperature gun, check everyone, and then get the fuck out there as fast as they can,” Bennett said. “The nurses don’t want to come in here because they know they’ll have to answer questions, and they’re going to have guys asking them to check their vitals and make sure that they’re okay, and they don’t want to deal with any of that.”

Bennett, who is due to be released in August, contracted the virus earlier this month and experienced firsthand how ODOC handles prisoners with COVID-19. 

His first confirmed positive test came on Jan. 4, but he had already felt ill days earlier, waking up on Dec. 30 with a mild fever and chills. Despite this, he was sent to work in an industrial laundry facility operated by Oregon Corrections Enterprises (OCE), a private company within the DOC responsible for overseeing prison labor. 

Among others, TRCI has laundry contracts with several area medical centers, including Mid-Columbia Medical Center in The Dalles, OR; Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland, WA; Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, OR, and Lourdes Medical Center in Pasco, WA. 

Oregon Health and Sciences University is among the hospitals using prison labor to launder its linens. (Photo source: Wesley Lapointe)

Representatives from these hospitals did not respond to requests for comment regarding their contracts with Oregon Corrections Enterprises. 

“The DOC laundry has been relentless in their efforts to process product in an unsafe and unhealthy working environment,” Bennett said. “And they have no regard for the health or the safety of their workers, particularly the inmates. It’s become a dumping ground of COVID cases”.

While displaying symptoms, including a persistent cough and a sweaty fever, Bennett was cleared to work in the laundry facility. Under Oregon law, which requires prisoners to work full-time, his refusal could have lead to discipline–including time in the hole or even the loss of his upcoming parole date.

Bennett says it wasn’t long before much of his unit began to fall ill. According to Bennett, at least one older man had to be evacuated because of a sudden onset of symptoms. And the virus began to spread among staff too, leading to staffing shortages among corrections officers and medical staff. 

Four days after his positive test, Bennett was sent to Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, where he spent one week in quarantine. By the 15th, he was sent back to TRCI, where the viruses’ lingering effects on the heart continued to trouble him.

And on Jan 18th, Bennett was once again told he was going back to work, despite his entire unit still being on quarantine.

“I was working the entire time I was sick,” Bennett said. “And I was literally shrink-wrapping clean product to be sent back to hospitals.”

The Blackout

Alone, the outbreak of the deadly virus would be disastrous enough. But on Dec. 16, an underground electrical explosion–which the East Oregonian and Oregon Public Broadcasting reported was due to shoddy wiring–led to a power outage that affected six housing units and 600 prisoners–nearly a third of the facility’s population. The power wasn’t restored until the day before Christmas–over a week later. 

The blackout triggered a partial lockdown of the affected housing units. During the outage, prisoners were rarely able to leave their cells, only being released once per day for brief showers and phone calls. 

ODOC representatives told reporters that a mobile kitchen was brought in to help prepare hot breakfasts, as well as emergency generators to run critical infrastructure at night–though they never specified which infrastructure was powered by the generators. To illuminate the darkness, prisoners were supposedly given small battery operated electric lights to use in their cells. 

But those in contact with inmates on the inside disputed ODOC’s claims. 

Morgan’s partner in TRCI said that they were served sandwiches with meat that expired in 2017, as well cold beans, cold hot dogs, and peanut butter and jelly tortillas. They were given electric lights on the final day of the blackout, but were not given batteries–those had to be purchased from the commissary.

Tara Herivel, a Portland-based attorney, told OPB that her clients had not been given electric lights and were served “expired meat with their sandwiches.” Another attorney’s client said the same thing in a report by the East Oregonian

The fear and isolation that goes along with the multiple outbreaks coursing through the facility coupled with darkness of blacked out cells led to tensions reaching a boiling point.

A few days into the power outage, prisoners in the affected units attempted to stage a peaceful protest in response to the rapidly worsening conditions. But after food was allegedly thrown at corrections officers, the protest was broken up and dozens of people were sent to administrative segregation, also known as the hole. According to people in the facility, corrections officers retaliated by turning off the air conditioning in housing units that participated in the demonstration, causing the heat to rise and the air to become stifling. 

Other prisoners, like Craig Dawson, were thrown in the hole for speaking out against breaches in COVID guidelines. 

A Pattern of Negligence

TRCI’s combined blackout, lockdown, and outbreak is the latest example of negligence at the medium-security facility. The prison has often been the primary source of “unexpected” deaths in Oregon prisons over the last decade.  In July 2020, Aaron Eaton, a prisoner at TRCI, filed a civil rights lawsuit alleging that corrections officers intentionally delayed safety inspections after Eaton was allegedly exposed to toxic black mold.

The continued cries of negligence and the unrest around it has been occurring amid an upheaval in the prison administration. On Dec. 15, one day before the blackout, TRCI Superintendent Tyler Blewett resigned for unknown reasons after just over a year in the position. His predecessor, Troy Bowser, was removed from the position after an internal investigation found he had made sexist comments and ignored sexual assault at the prison. The prison has since been run by acting Superintendent Kevin Jackson.

The harrowing conditions at TRCI are emblematic of a system-wide failure to respond to the ravages of the virus in Oregon. Though new infections are finally beginning to trend downward, ODOC is reporting a 42 percent positivity rate. 11 of the state’s 15 prisons are rated at Tier 4, which require facility-wide 14 day quarantine protocols, but people continue to be shuffled around to different facilities. These continued transfers have the potential of spreading the virus much further.

Bryan McDonald, who has previously sounded the alarm on conditions in Oregon prisons, said that ODOC left as many as 70 people with positive COVID-19 cases in a dorm with 100-plus other prisoners at Santiam Correctional Institution. 

“In essence, they forced inmates to anti-social distance and forced them into close proximity with people who had COVID-19,” McDonald said. “In essence, they’re forcibly spreading COVID-19 in the prison.”

McDonald also pushed back on claims made by ODOC officials in the Salem Statesman-Journal that said that inmates were moved to a “staging area” at SCI before being transferred elsewhere.

“They may have done this in other instances, with one or two cases, but I can tell you this is a lie,” McDonald said. “They left people infected with COVID-19 among other inmates for over 24 hours.”

Officials with the Oregon Department of Corrections did not return multiple requests for comment.

These conditions led a group of prisoners, represented by the Oregon Justice Resource Commission, to file a class action lawsuit last April against ODOC and Gov. Kate Brown, alleging that conditions in prisons due to COVID-19 violate their Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment. ODOC attempted to get the suit thrown out, but on the day of the blackout at TRCI, a federal judge ruled that the lawsuit could proceed. 

A federal court will soon decide whether Oregon officials can be held liable for their failure to prevent outbreaks of COVID-19 in state prisons.

Meanwhile, the state of Oregon is slowly proceeding with plans to distribute the vaccine staff at correctional facilities. About 400 doses have been distributed so far. Prisoners will reportedly be eligible to receive vaccinations in the next phase of the state’s rollout, though it is unclear when the plan will go into effect. As of publication, 200,000 doses of the vaccine have gone unused by the state. There are just over 15,000 prisoners in Oregon.

MG Belka is an Oregon-based journalist and member of the Double Sided Media collective. He is a contributing writer to Perilous Chronicle. Follow him on Twitter: @mgbelka