It was a deadly weekend for the Oregon Department of Corrections, with at least five prison inmates dying between Saturday and Monday while having COVID-19.

Four of the inmates were at the Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla, while the fifth was in custody at the Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras.

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The Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem is the oldest prison in Oregon and the only maximum security institution currently operated by the Oregon Department of Corrections.

The Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem is the oldest prison in Oregon and the only maximum security institution currently operated by the Oregon Department of Corrections.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra / OPB

The Oregon Department of Corrections doesn’t release identifying information about those who die while ill with COVID-19, but the agency did say all of the people died at local hospitals and were men between 55 and 85 years old.

“This is heartbreaking, but not surprising,” said Juan Chavez, a civil rights attorney who is representing inmates in a lawsuit against state and prison officials over their response to COVID-19. “They died because our state wouldn’t challenge mass incarceration even when these people’s lives depended on it.”

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DOC’s Jennifer Black said it’s been a difficult weekend for the agency and said every death of an inmate in their care is traumatic for everyone it touches.

“As these past days illustrate, Oregon’s prisons have not escaped the devastating impacts of COVID-19,” Black said in an email. “More than half of DOC’s incarcerated population have been identified as COVID-19-vulnerable, based on community standard criteria. Generally, incarcerated people are in worse health than their peers in the community, and Oregon has one of the oldest incarcerated populations in the country.”

Black said employees will continue to work to bring outbreaks under control “because positive cases in prisons not only impact employees and (adults in custody), but also the surrounding communities.”

Oregon has struggled with how to address COVID-19 in its prisons. So far, at least 33 people in custody have died from the disease since the pandemic began last spring. At least 11 of those deaths have been this month.

In early December, several COVID-19 positive inmates were transferred from the Deer Ridge prison to the medical isolation unit at Two Rivers due to the growing number of cases at Deer Ridge.

Department of Corrections officials say the inmates were kept separate, though after the transfers, the number of cases at Two Rivers grew significantly.

This is a developing story. Watch for updates.

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