Oregon inmate in Salem tests positive for COVID-19, the first in the state prison system

Oregon State Penitentiary (Courtesy/Wikimedia Commons)

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The Oregon Department of Corrections Thursday night reported what it had long expected – the first instance of an inmate testing positive for COVID-19.

The agency said in a statement that the inmate was housed at the Santiam Correctional Institution, a minimum-security prison at 4005 Aumsville Highway S.E. with 480 inmates, now referred to by the state as adults in custody.

“The patient is in stable condition and is being treated on site,” the agency said. The positive test was received Thursday, April 2.

“Even with all of our preventative measures, like restricting visiting, social distancing, and suspending any programs, we knew the first case was inevitable because our institutions are microcosm of our communities,” said Colette Peters, Corrections Department director.

The case is the latest to emerge from local institutions. The Corrections Department earlier this week said an employee at the Oregon State Penitentiary reported a positive test, followed by the disclosure of an infected employee at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem. On Thursday, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office reported that two employees in its jail had tested positive for COVID-19.

In all cases, the agencies have provided little information about the infected individuals, following state guidance to restrict such information to protect the privacy of the infected individuals.

But a case emerging in the prison system has long been a worry for state officials, health authorities, and justice reform advocates. More than 14,000 inmates are housed in 14 prisons and other facilities across Oregon.

In mid-March, the Oregon Justice Resource Center, a Portland nonprofit involved in civil rights and criminal justice reform, urged state and local leaders to pare down inmate populations.

“There are many reasons why incarcerated people may be especially vulnerable to outbreaks of infection, including living at close quarters to one another, unsanitary conditions, poor health, and the large numbers of people who cycle through the system,” the resource center said in a statement last month. “An outbreak of coronavirus in a facility will threaten the health of far more than simply those inside.”

The group called on Gov. Kate Brown to release some state inmates.

“The governor should use her powers of clemency to bring about the early release of people in state prisons whose sentences will end in the next twelve months,” the group said.

State data showed more than half those at Santiam – 268 – are scheduled for release in the next year.

The governor said last month that “all options” such as clemency for certain inmates remained open but she had no immediately plan to act.

At the Santiam facility, all inmates will be screened and those with symptoms would be tested for the novel coronavirus, the state agency said.

The Corrections Department said it was also contacting all those who had visited the prison in the seven days before the positive test result was received. The agency had already suspended visits and volunteer work at Santiam and other state prisons.

“I know the family and friends of the adults in custody are extremely concerned for their loved ones,” Peters said in her statement. “I can assure you, we are taking all necessary measures to operate safe and secure institutions where people can work and live and stay healthy.”