Three inmates at the Coffee Creek Correctional Institution with underlying medical conditions, who say they are vulnerable to COVID-19, filed a petition late Thursday with the Oregon Supreme Court asking for a mechanism to seek early release.

The inmates argue Oregon’s Parole Board has wrongfully turned much of its release authority over to the Department of Corrections, which has very limited release powers. They’re challenging the Parole Board’s approach to determining who is eligible for compassionate release.

“The board of parole has the ability to release a number of inmates who have severe medical conditions,” said Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, which filed the petition on behalf of the women. “We believe the board is acting deliberately indifferent.”

Inmates in custody are at higher risk for contracting COVID-19 because they’re often in crowded, communal living situations where social distancing is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Oregon’s prisons are more than 95% full.

In their filing on behalf of the three women, OJRC notes the Parole Board is responsible for granting early release to inmates whose continued incarceration is inhumane and cruel because of a severe medical condition.

“In response to the Governor’s Orders, rather than expedite release consideration for vulnerable inmates at risk of permanent injury or death from COVID-19, the Board published a policy informing adults in custody that under its rules early release was unlikely due to limitations and delays in processing requests,” OJRC wrote in its filings. “In other words, the Board, in carrying out its duty, has slammed the prison gate on Oregon’s most vulnerable individuals in custody as COVID-19 threatens their lives.”

Earlier this month, several DOC inmates filed a lawsuit against the agency and Gov. Kate Brown. They argue the state isn’t doing enough to protect inmates in custody and argue if social distancing measures can’t be guaranteed, inmates should be released.

The Department of Corrections has provided the governor with raw data on thousands of people who meet certain criteria: underlying health conditions, inmates with approved residences, those over 60 years old, and those with release dates in the next year, among other factors. Still, on Tuesday, Brown said she would not be releasing people early over concerns about COVID-19. 

“After an initial review of this information, the Governor does not have plans at this time to release adults in custody early,” Liz Merah, the governor’s spokeswoman, wrote in an email late Wednesday. “Our office will review any new information that comes forward, and any future decisions would be made on a case-by-case basis.”

On Monday, DOC staff presented its analysis to the governor. In order to follow Brown’s order about social distancing, DOC estimated 5,800 adults in custody, roughly 40 percent of the state’s inmates, would have to be released from custody, the presentation noted. DOC identified 5,962 inmates for possible release.