Oregon’s Prisons Struggle With COVID-19 And Its Impact On People Behind Bars

By Geoff Norcross (OPB)
Portland, Ore. July 20, 2020 7:45 p.m.

The number of COVID-19 cases is surging again, including inside Oregon's prisons. Recent numbers showed a spike in cases at Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario, Oregon, and prisoners are quarantined in at least two other state facilities.

The Snake River Correctional Institution, photographed on Aug. 25, 2019.

The Snake River Correctional Institution, photographed on Aug. 25, 2019.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

Trying to control the spread of a virus in prison means major changes in daily life — and in the ways lawyers can interact with their clients.

Tara Herivel is an attorney who has spent much of this pandemic working on cases involving the rights of prisoners during this public health crisis. She talked with OPB "Morning Edition" host Geoff Norcross about what her clients are experiencing. To hear their conversation, use the audio player at the top of this story.

Geoff Norcross: What do we know right now about the state of things in Oregon prisons? 

Tara Herivel: "We know that the outbreak is increasing every day, exponentially; in some prisons like Snake River Correctional Institution, it's around 3,000 prisoners who are now currently quarantined. Oregon State Prison is the other prison with a massive outbreak, that entire prison is in quarantine as well.


"More than a third of Oregon’s prisoners are in quarantine."

Norcross: How has this pandemic changed life for people in custody? 

Herivel: "Entirely. First, prisoners are terrified. They are in environments where staff are not required to wear masks and there's currently a move to require that, but unions inexplicably are pushing back on that requirement. So staff have not been required to wear masks, even though they are the vectors who are bringing COVID in and then bringing [it] back out to their communities.

"Prisoners are getting COVID and hiding it because they are treated punitively and put in segregation and lose all of their privileges. Or they are getting COVID and not being allowed to be tested, being told it’s just allergies. It has created a mass impairment for prisoners psychologically and also physically."

Norcross: Gov. Kate Brown told us last week that she’s sticking with her current approach to prison releases to guard against this disease — she’s doing it on a case-by-case basis rather than releasing large groups or certain classes of inmates. Is that the right approach? 

Herivel: "No, of course not. We know that social distancing cannot be achieved without a much smaller population of prisoners. The Department of Corrections was tasked by the governor back in April to draft a report with recommendations to her about what would be required to achieve social distancing in prisons. The Department of Corrections provided a pretty straightforward series of recommendations, which included a 40% reduction in the population and they even provided a list of medically vulnerable prisoners. The governor rejected that.

"She’s commuted 50-some people to date and made a clear statement that she will not support mass release."

Norcross: One of the things this pandemic has shown is that it's exceptionally difficult to prevent the spread of diseases in any place where people live in close quarters. This includes nursing homes, homeless shelters — and jails and prisons. Is this pandemic going to lead to any permanent changes in our system for incarcerating people?

Herivel: “I’d certainly hope so. What we’ve seen at the jail level in particular and in the federal systems is a big reduction in how we treat really minor infractions … I think bail reform and moving away from incarceration as the automatic entry point to the system is critical. We are seeing a lot of that. In terms of people incarcerated in the face of a massive pandemic, we haven’t seen the systemic changes that are needed in Oregon. Every prisoner is in harm’s way right now, and no comprehensive action has been taken.”