Oregon inmates sue over the Corrections Department’s handling of COVID-19 in prisons

Oregon State Penitentiary (Courtesy/Wikimedia Commons)

A week after corrections officer at the Oregon State Penitentiary went home in mid March after experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, David Hart, an inmate in A Block, became very ill.

Hart, who suffers a respiratory condition that makes him vulnerable to COVID-19, had a fever and dry cough, according to a new federal court complaint. He felt lethargic and coughed up blood.

Hart now claims in a lawsuit that he was denied a test for the novel coronavirus. He maintains that despite a doctor telling him to remain quarantined, he still had to take his meals with other prisoners and he still had a cellmate who continued going to their job.

Hart is among prisoners who on Tuesday who sued Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Department of Corrections in U.S. District Court for failing to stop the spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities and placing vulnerable prisoners at risk.

DOCUMENT: Corrections Department complaint

They are represented by attorneys with the Oregon Justice Resource Center, a Portland-based civil rights group. The complaint accuses corrections officials of violating the constitutional rights of inmates while exposing older and medically fragile inmates who are at a higher risk of having a severe reaction to the virus.

“ODOC has, thus, willfully and wantonly ignored the public health threat caused by this global pandemic,” the complaint said.

Since the outbreak, the department has been of particular concern to authorities and criminal justice reform advocates because of the close proximity of the 14,655 inmates housed in 14 facilities.

On April 1, the department announced with few details that its first inmate tested positive for COVID-19. Since then, two employees and three inmates have tested positive at Santiam Correctional Institution, according to the state’s recent count. Three employees at Oregon State Penitentiary have tested positive as well.

Bobbin Singh, the executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, said that suing inmates want the Corrections Department to comply with social distancing requirements the governor has imposed. He said that pandemic has revealed that prisons aren’t designed for a major public health crisis and that governor may need to release inmates early.

“What we are seeing is all our systems being tested beyond their limits,” he said.

Department Director Colette Peters responded with a statement saying that “we are doing everything in our power to maintain social distancing inside our institutions.” She said the department is “thoughtfully housing” vulnerable prisoners while “providing quality healthcare to those who are ill.”

“Our mission has never been easy, and it is even more complicated in the midst of a global pandemic,” she said. “We do not simply operate prisons. We operate a health care system inside our prison system,” she said.

The lawsuit was by Hart as well as Paul Maney, Gary Clift, George Nulph, Theron Hall, David Hart, Micah Rhodes and Sheryl Lynn Sublet. The inmates are incarcerated at facilities including the Oregon State Correctional Institution and Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Columbia River Correctional Institution in Portland and Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville.

According to the lawsuit, the prisoners are older or have medical conditions including HIV, respiratory diseases and other ailments that make contracting the virus potentially lethal.

The suit said there are 1,119 people in its custody who are over the age of 60 and 3,471 people between the ages of 46 and 60.

The lawsuit contends that inmates are still sharing cells, dining halls and bathrooms where they are susceptible to contracting the virus.

The department has stopped visitation, canceled some group activities and limited the number of people in chapels or group areas. It’s also begun housing vulnerable inmates together and testing inmates for the virus. But the lawsuit alleges that the department isn’t following even the “minimal standards” of guidelines from the federal Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.

The lawsuit claims that inmates still haven’t increased physical space between each other and those with symptoms haven’t been provided face masks or placed in quarantine.

It specifically states that the management of Salem’s Oregon State Penitentiary, the state’s only maximum-security facility, hasn’t adequately sanitized cells or provided medical attention to inmates displaying symptoms. Inmates from A Block who came in contact with the first employee who tested positive for COVID-19 were transferred to the Columbia River Correctional Institution instead of being put in quarantine, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit asks a court to mandate that the department require social distancing, quarantine suspected cases, improve sanitization of facilities, test for COVID-19 and others.

 Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.


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