A federal judge in Portland ruled Tuesday that a group of Oregon prison inmates could continue suing state officials over their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The class-action lawsuit states the seven inmates named in the case have underlying medical conditions and are at risk for contracting COVID-19; though the case applies to any Department of Corrections inmate who has contracted the disease or is medically vulnerable.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie Beckerman ruled state leaders named in the lawsuit are not protected from litigation over their response to the pandemic inside Oregon’s correctional institutions. The ruling could have national implications because it’s believed to be one of the first rulings where a judge found a state is not protected from litigation over its pandemic response in prisons and could have to pay financial damages.

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“No one was sentenced to die of COVID-19 in prison,” said Juan Chavez, one of the civil rights attorneys representing the inmates. “No one deserves that agonizing fate. We clung to mass incarceration when all of the health science pointed to decarceration as the answer to protecting lives.”

Related: Indigenous inmates, volunteers navigate a year without ceremonies, celebrations

The lawsuit names Gov. Kate Brown, Oregon Department of Corrections Director Collette Peters and other prison officials in both their personal and professional capacities.

In August, the Oregon Department of Justice, which represents Brown and the other defendants, asked Beckerman to dismiss the lawsuit’s primary argument. The attorneys for the state argued the defendants were protected by qualified immunity because the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented and there’s no clear constitutional requirement for the Department of Corrections to limit COVID-19 spread inside prisons. But in her 26-page opinion, Beckerman disagreed.

“The law does not support a finding of qualified immunity for government officials who fail to protect individuals in their custody from a new serious communicable disease, as opposed to a serious communicable disease of which they were previously aware,” Beckerman wrote. “To hold otherwise as a matter of law would provide qualified immunity to defendants even if they had done nothing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The ruling puts the state in a precarious legal position, one where people in custody could now argue before a jury that Oregon officials were deliberately indifferent toward prisoners at risk for contracting COVID-19.

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The lawsuit was first filed in April.

The Oregon Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the opinion and its implications for the state. Brown’s office declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is an extraordinary event,” attorneys for the Oregon DOJ wrote in their August court filing seeking to dismiss the lawsuit. “There is no controlling case law explaining how to address such a situation in the prison context. Every country, every state, every institution is grappling to figure out how to handle the many complex issues that have arisen.”

The attorneys for the state argued addressing the pandemic in prisons calls for discretionary judgment, both in terms of policies and how they are implemented.

Beckerman rejected that argument, stating “the law is clearly established that individuals in government custody have a constitutional right to be protected against a heightened exposure to serious, easily communicable diseases, and the Court finds that this clearly established right extends to protection from COVID-19.”

The risk of harm to inmates from the virus is not disputed, Beckerman wrote. She said it should’ve been no surprise to the governor and state prison leaders that they’re responsible for protecting inmates from being exposed to COVID-19, “despite the novelty of the virus.”

Beckerman said there are clear legal rights inmates have protecting them from serious communicable diseases. Part of her legal analysis rested on Helling v. McKinney, a 1993 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court involving a Nevada inmate who said his involuntary exposure to cigarette smoke posed a health risk. In a 7-2 ruling, the court found prison officials cannot “be deliberately indifferent to the exposure of inmates to a serious, communicable disease.” Beckerman also said that opinion would apply under the 8th Amendment, which guards against cruel and unusual punishment.

Related: Oregon prisons to release more inmates as COVID-19 outbreaks continue

At roughly 12,900 inmates, Oregon’s prison population is the lowest it’s been in years. Still, the state reports more than 1,600 people in custody have contracted COVID-19 this year, and 19 have died as of publication.

Meanwhile, the governor has been slow to release inmates early because of COVID-19, despite calls from defense attorneys and other groups. So far, Brown has commuted the sentences of 123 inmates who meet certain criteria, including having suitable housing after their release. An additional 144 inmates are set to be released by the end of December.


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