One of Oregon’s largest prisons, already hard hit by COVID-19 cases, had been grappling with a major power outage for the last week.
The outage at the Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla began on Dec. 16 and has affected six housing units and about 600 inmates, or a third of the prison’s total population. Staff and outside contractors have been on site trying to determine the cause of the outage and how best to resolve it, according to the Oregon Department of Corrections.
Prisons officials don’t yet have a firm timeframe for when power will be restored.
The outage comes as the state’s prison system has been rocked by COVID-19. So far, more than 1900 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus and 20 have died. As of Monday, 85 inmates at the Two Rivers prison were being treated for COVID-19.
“They’re going through a power outage of unknown length and pandemic conditions,” said Tara Herivel, an attorney with clients at Two Rivers. “This is severe. One or the other would be terrible.”
Like the power outage, it’s not totally clear how COVID-19 re-surfaced inside the prison.
On Dec. 3 and 4, two employees tested positive. Then on Dec. 10, corrections staff transferred 10 COVID-19-positive inmates from Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras to the medical isolation unit at Two Rivers. Deer Ridge has more than 130 inmates who are currently positive for coronavirus, though they’ve had more than 200 cases just this month.
“We are required to medically care for those in our custody, and sometimes that requires they be moved to another institution,” said Jennifer Black, a spokeswoman for the state corrections department.
On Dec. 10, two inmates at the Two Rivers prison tested positive for COVID-19. The next day, five more tested positive. By the end of last week, there were 40 additional inmates and four more staff at the prison who had tested positive for COVID-19.
“There should be no comings and goings from a tier-four institution,” Herivel said. That’s the highest level of quarantine based on cases at an individual prison.
As for the power outage, the prison had five back-up generators on-site that staff turned on when the power first went off on Dec. 16, Black said. On Dec. 19, prison officials brought in additional generators, she said.
“We understand that this is a terribly difficult time for the employees and [adults in custody] at TRCI, and we are working hard to resolve the issue,” Black said in an email.
Back up generators run during the night, she said, and are off during the day so crews can work.
The inmates “have small battery-powered lights in each cell on the affected units,” Black said. “Showers and legal calls are being facilitated by staff.”
Inmates have received a hot breakfast and bagged lunches and dinners. A portable kitchen was expected to arrive Tuesday and begin serving additional hot meals.
Herivel said she hasn’t heard of anyone receiving lights or hot meals.
“In the last few days they were offered meat in their sandwiches and it was expired,” she said.