COVID-19 Situation Worsens Inside Oregon Prisons

By Conrad Wilson (OPB) and Lauren Dake (OPB)
May 13, 2020 9 p.m.

UPDATE (9:01 p.m. PT) — At least three Oregon prisoners have been released into their communities while unknowingly carrying the coronavirus, Department of Corrections officials confirmed Wednesday.

Two of the former inmates contracted the virus at Shutter Creek Correctional Institution on Oregon’s South Coast. They received positive COVID-19 tests shortly after being released this month, raising concerns that inmates leaving the prison could be spreading the virus through the community.

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

Shutter Creek Correctional Institution is one of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the state's prison system, with 25 inmates testing positive and 15 pending. The inmates who were released had completed their sentences and were tested while still in the custody of the Department of Corrections. The results, however, only came after they were free.

A third inmate was released from the Oregon State Penitentiary late last week with a positive test result and the wrong county was notified.

DOC indicated, though didn't explicitly say, the three men had been quarantined in their new housing situations.

Vanessa Vanderzee, an agency spokeswoman, said no other inmates have been released from custody with pending test results. She added that none of the inmates who were released and later tested positive had symptoms at the time they were tested.

"All three of these individuals were tested as part of asymptomatic contact tracing, not because of their upcoming release," Vanderzee wrote in an emailed response to OPB. "Therefore, their release date was not considered/referenced at the time of testing. This is an oversight that has since been addressed ... . Moving forward, the goal is to never again have a situation where an individual is released with a pending test."

The news comes as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases inside the state’s prisons climbed to 101 as of Wednesday, with outbreaks as large as 68 at Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem and seven at Santiam Correctional Institution.

“We are not testing individuals on the way out,” DOC Director Collette Peters said on a May 5 conference call with southern Oregon officials. “That would be a substantial number of tests over time. We release over 400 people every month into the community.”

DOC has tested at least 367 inmates as of Wednesday, though the prison population is more than 14,000 inmates across 14 facilities scattered around the state. There are also at least 28 staff members who have tested positive. The majority of them work at the Oregon State Penitentiary.

Peters also noted that testing only looks at a moment in time and isn't "magic." On that same call, prison health officials said even if they tested everyone, there's no guarantee it would identify everyone who has the virus.

The two Shutter Creek inmates who were released and later tested positive received those tests because they had been in close contact with someone else who had tested positive.

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

One of the inmates was released into Coos County and the other was released into Douglas County, both at the end of April. The third inmate, revealed by DOC on Wednesday, was released in Jackson County.

Vanderzee said there has been some some capacity for rapid testing through OHA. By the end of this week, she said, rapid testing will be available at all of the state's prisons.

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"This means that if we have an individual in the future who is identified through contact tracing and is also about to release, we can get them tested and receive results prior to their release," Vanderzee said.

The spike in confirmed COVID-19 cases at Oregon State Penitentiary, in Salem, points to another problem for Oregon corrections officials: Even in facilities where inmates live in less communal settings, controlling the spread of the coronavirus is nearly impossible due to crowding. The facility is currently on lockdown because of a fight that broke out earlier this week.

For months, prison advocates have been calling on Oregon leaders to consider early release for vulnerable inmates who are near the end of their sentences. Gov. Kate Brown has received details of inmates' health conditions, age, sentences and crimes that could make them eligible for early release. Ultimately, however, she decided against reducing the state's prison population.

Court documents filed this week reveal a sense of the fear from adults living behind bars in the midst of a global pandemic. Inmates filed a request for a temporary restraining order asking a judge to force DOC to reduce prison populations and “directing them to take every action within their power to reduce the risk of COVID-19 from further ravaging Oregon Department of Corrections prisoner populations.” A DOC spokeswoman said the agency doesn't comment on pending litigation.

The same inmates filed a lawsuit in April, alleging the agency hasn't done enough to create social distance inside correctional facilities.

The inmates’ testimonies to the Oregon Justice Resource Center, a legal nonprofit, paint a picture of a patchwork of regulations and varying protocols throughout the state’s 14-prison system.

Chris Mitchell, an inmate at Shutter Creek Correctional Institution, spoke of being reticent to share his symptoms for fear of being transferred to another DOC facility where sick inmates are being sent. It was a sentiment echoed by several adults living in the state’s custody.

Related: Oregon Law Forces Jury Trials To Continue, Increasing Virus Risk

“Not knowing what will happen to me if I test positive makes me not want to take a test. This is my home facility and it took 18 months for me to get here. This is where my family is,” he said. “If I get sent to Coffee Creek, I don’t know if I can come back, and I don’t want to take that chance. I want to be told honestly what would happen. At least then I’d know, and I could worry less about it.”

At the beginning of March, Aaron Delicino at Snake River Correctional Institution came down with a cough. He wasn’t the only one. “A bunch of other people on my unit also got really sick,” he told the Oregon Justice Resource Center.

After nine days of being sick, a nurse checked his temperature — it fluctuated between 103 and 104 degrees.

“The nurse I saw gave me salt packets and told me to gargle with saltwater. That’s the only ‘care’ I got,” Delicino said. “Ultimately I was in my cell for 14 or 15 days before the fever kicked.”

When he asked for a COVID-test, he said, he was told he didn’t need one.

Delicino said he still has a dry cough.

So far, no people have tested positive for COVID-19 at Snake River Correctional Institution, though 23 have been tested. One result is still pending

Leland Benson, a 73-year-old diabetic man who is insulin-dependent and living at Deer Ridge Correctional Institution, said he is feeling fine so far but mainly keeps to his cell out of fear.

Near the end of March, a nurse at DRCI, outside of Madras, showed up for work coughing, sneezing and complaining of being ill, he said.

“She had just returned from a cruise. I did not allow her to take my blood test or provide me insulin. Because of her illness, I was not able to access insulin for five or six days,” he said.

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