Oregon State Correctional Institution. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

 

A medium-security prison located just outside of Salem has reported an outbreak of Covid a month after the prison was evacuated due to nearby wildfires.

Fifty-nine inmates and six employees at Oregon State Correctional Institution, located at 3405 Deer Park Dr S.E., have tested positive for the virus, according to the Department of Corrections.

The outbreak is the most recent workplace outbreak in Marion County included in a weekly report issued by the Oregon Health Authority Wednesday afternoon.

According to the report, the Oregon Health Authority began its investigation of the outbreak on Sept. 28. The person most recently diagnosed with Covid began showing symptoms on Sept. 30.

The health authority’s report lists 41 cases of Covid at the prison, but the DOC website, which has more current data puts the number of active cases higher at 59 with six staff members testing positive. Another 410 inmates at the prison tested negative.

According to the department’s website, there have been a total of 1,109 individuals in custody statewide who have tested positive for Covid since the pandemic began in the spring, and 13 deaths of inmates who were positive for the virus. A total of 271 staff have tested positive.

Prisons have been a particular area of concern during the Covid pandemic because their close quarters make social distancing difficult, if not impossible. 

In April, the Oregon Department of Corrections announced its first incarcerated individual tested positive for the virus. The department has said that it is trying to maintain social distancing in prisons while isolating medically vulnerable individuals. But the department still faces a lawsuit that alleges it hasn’t done enough to protect inmates.

“There’s been a jump in cases at OSCI in recent days which is very concerning,” said Alice Lundell, spokeswoman for the Oregon Justice Resource Center. “We’ve already seen at other prisons how a handful of cases can grow exponentially. Three of Oregon’s four largest workplace outbreaks are in prisons which reflects the impossibility of practicing physical distancing in such cramped and crowded environments.”

While Gov. Kate Brown has released some individuals in custody early, criminal justice reform advocates, including the Oregon Justice Resource Center, have called on her to release more to free up space.

During last month’s historic wildfires, the department had to evacuate multiple prisons, including the Oregon State Correctional Institution. Lundell said that her group found the timing of the outbreak, which came weeks after the evacuations, significant. She called for the Legislature to launch an independent investigation of what happened during the evacuations and how their handling may have contributed to the virus’ spread.

Department spokeswoman Jennifer Black said in an email that it is impossible to definitively identify the source of the outbreak and there are countless factors that affect the number of cases in prison.

“County infection rate, local community attitudes toward the virus, prison population demographics, and prison infrastructure are just a few examples of variables,” she said.

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