Prisons Have Oregon's Largest COVID Outbreak But Testing, Social Distancing Remain Scarce

By Lauren Dake (OPB) and Conrad Wilson (OPB)
Portland, Ore. June 2, 2020 12:30 p.m.

After 21 days of being sick, Steven Richardson was finally starting to feel better.


“But it’s still like I’m in a fog,” Richardson told an investigator with the Oregon Justice Resource Center on May 8. “I feel like I just ran a marathon and can’t get my breath back.”

At one point, he felt so ill he called his mom to talk to her about the possibility of having a will drawn up.

Related: 1 Prison Has More Than 70% Of Oregon's Corrections COVID-19 Cases

But Richardson refused to be tested for COVID-19. At the time he spoke to the investigator, he had fewer than 90 days left on his sentence at Shutter Creek Correctional Institution on Oregon's South Coast and he was determined to prevent anything from jeopardizing his release.

He’s not the only one.

A lot of people incarcerated in his unit are sick; 25 throughout the prison have tested positive for COVID-19. But many are resisting testing because it could mean they are transferred to one of the Department of Corrections COVID-quarantine units. There, they worry they could be largely confined to a solitary cell and lose the few privileges they currently have.

Special housing cells at an Oregon Department of Corrections prison.

Special housing cells at an Oregon Department of Corrections prison.

Oregon Department Of Corrections

One correctional officer who works with inmates who have tested positive for the virus said there is an understanding that "there isn't a single inmate at Shutter Creek who can taste or smell right now" — symptoms linked to COVID-19 infections. The correctional officer spoke to OPB on the condition he wasn't named because he feared he'd lose his job.

What’s missing in prisons

Two of the most critical elements to getting through the coronavirus pandemic — social distancing and widespread testing for the virus — are sorely lacking inside prisons. People confined there are kept in large numbers and close quarters, with few being tested.

Related: Prisons, Jails And The Pandemic: How Coronavirus Is Affecting The Incarcerated

Widespread testing is a key public-safety benchmark, which health experts consider necessary for tracking the coronavirus and protecting people from its spread. But the Oregon Department of Corrections has tested only about 4% of its inmates. And still, the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem is now the state's largest outbreak — with 123 positive cases with 23 tests pending and 44 staff members who have tested positive.

All told, 157 incarcerated adults have tested positive in four different Oregon prisons. One man, who the Department of Corrections would only say was between the ages of 50 and 60, and an inmate at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, has died. Dozens of others have recovered.

Officials say a big factor behind the low testing rate in Oregon’s prisons is that testing of incarcerated individuals is voluntary — and many of those individuals are choosing not to be tested.

“We aren’t going to … strap them down and test them,” said Jennifer Black, the DOC's communications manager. “That’s not how we do business at the Department of Corrections … This is the same as if you were in the community making your own health choices.”

Correctional officers don’t have to share their test results with their employer, but more than 40 have informed the Department of Corrections they tested positive.

Inmates at several Oregon prisons sued DOC and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown over the agency's handling of COVID-19 behind bars. The inmates allege not enough is being done to keep them safe and social distancing is nearly impossible.

Prisons not made for social distancing

DOC Director Colette Peters said as much Thursday to state lawmakers during a legislative hearing.

“Our prisons weren’t made for social distancing,” she said, adding they were made to house a large number of individuals in close quarters.

Bobbin Singh, the executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center.

Bobbin Singh, the executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center.

Courtesy of Bobbin Singh

That has created a double standard, Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, told state lawmakers during the same hearing. His organization is representing the inmates. There are certain expectations that protect people from the virus — social distancing primarily — and yet that is impossible for those confined in the state’s prisons, he said.

Singh is pushing the governor to consider an early release from incarceration for those who are particularly vulnerable: people who are elderly and those with vulnerable conditions. He’s asking lawmakers to dedicate emergency funding to transitional housing to help ease some of the obstacles of releasing inmates early.

“So we know that COVID-19 hasn’t spread to all of the prions, but as I mentioned the testing rates are low. We don’t know the true extent that COVID-19 is in our prisons,” he said.

So far, Brown said she wouldn't release inmates over risks surrounding COVID-19.

Related: Oregon Gov. Kate Brown Won't Release Prisoners Over COVID Risks

A U.S. magistrate judge on Monday rejected a bid by inmates seeking a preliminary injunction against the Department of Corrections.

In arguments before Magistrate Judge Stacie F. Beckerman, lawyers with OJRC and their clients argued for a decision that could have forced the agency to do more, even releasing certain inmates.

David Hart, an inmate at the Oregon State Penitentiary with damaged lungs and diabetes, was one of the people who testified. He described crowded conditions and little social distancing.

“When we’re coming in off the yard, we’re just packed in a line, shoulder to shoulder, no social distancing, no masks; and this happens every day,” Hart said. “The phones, they didn’t start getting wiped down and sprayed down until sometime in the early part of May.”

In a written declaration filed with the court, Hart added after he tested positive for COVID-19, he was moved to the Disciplinary Segregation Unit (DSU), where COVID-19 positive inmates are being housed.

“When I got into my DSU cell it had not been cleaned,” Hart said, according to court documents. “There were two used bars of soap in the cell and food on the ground.”

He said the staff was not wearing masks.

Hart told the judge his cellmate refused to get tested for COVID-19.

“There are more people refusing that COVID test because they don’t want to be isolated and like DSU inmates,” Hart said during Friday’s hearing. “They told us to come forward and that nothing would change in our routine and that we would be treated humanely. And that is not the case, your honor, it’s not the case.”

The virus enters 

The state knows the virus sneaked into Shutter Creek Correctional Institution in March before the state began a widespread lockdown.

An inmate from Santiam Correctional Institution in Salem was transferred to the facility. It was the day before the agency suspended visitations and two days before they began reducing transfers between prisons.

Related: COVID-19 Situation Worsens Inside Oregon Prisons

The unidentified inmate was asymptomatic and wasn’t tested because the DOC said, he didn’t meet testing criteria. It was only after he started showing symptoms that the DOC isolated the inmate and he saw the medical staff. Shutter Creek houses about 300 inmates in open dorm-style housing.

Transfers between prisons are still happening, with inmates being shuffled from one of the state’s 14 prisons to the next.

And about 400 inmates, on average, are released back into the community every month.

In two of the more unsettling instances, inmates from Shutter Creek Correctional Institution were tested while serving time. They were released. Only then did their tests come back positive for COVID-19. It happened a third time involving an inmate released from the Oregon State Penitentiary.

Those releases raised concerns that inmates leaving the prison could be spreading the virus through the community. It was an “oversight” the Department of Corrections said, promising it wouldn’t happen again.

But the truth is, Dr. Daniel Dewsnup, the infectious disease physician with DOC said, the outbreaks in prisons are surely larger than what’s being reported. That’s not something widespread testing can necessarily solve, he said.

And that’s why as incarcerated people are let back into the community, the doctor has a warning: “We tell the counties from these endemic institutions we can’t guarantee these patients are COVID-free when they are being released.”