As of today, at least one employee and one inmate within Oregon's prison system have tested positive for COVID-19. The Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) has assured the public that they've been planning for the coronavirus' arrival for weeks, and are following the social distancing guidelines laid out by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and echoed in Gov. Kate Brown's March 23 executive order to prevent the virus' continued spread.
Other US prisons have seen a single case of COVID-19 explode into hundreds in a matter of days. And other prisons, in an attempt to avoid that kind of outbreak, have begun releasing inmates who are nearing the end of their sentence to allow for social distancing in their facilities. Oregon, meanwhile, has paused its early release program during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Brown has not expressed any interest in granting prisoners clemency to reduce the population size.
While ODOC spokespeople have admitted that Oregon's 14 prisons "were not designed with a pandemic in mind," and are struggling to follow Brown's executive order, officials have told the public and media they are doing all they can to stave off the virus' spread thus far.
People listening to those statements from within the prison system, however, see things differently. To understand how ODOC's preventative measures are perceived by those stuck in a state prison, the Mercury spoke with two inmates currently incarcerated in Columbia River Correctional Institution (CRCI), a minimum security prison located in North Portland.
Anonymous CRCI Inmate
The first inmate we spoke with asked to conceal their identity, out of fear of retaliation from ODOC. They are 26 years old, from Portland, and have been at CRCI for about two years.
MERCURY: What have you been hearing about ODOC's response to COVID-19, and how does that match up with what you're seeing inside CRCI?
CRCI INMATE: Myself and many other inmates have been watching TV and seeing the news that DOC is putting out, and we're very upset. What they're saying is so far from the truth, and they're risking our lives in the process.
Tell me about what you're most concerned about.
The biggest issue is that we simply aren't practicing the social distancing guidelines recommended by the CDC. I'm in a dormitory with over 80 people, with people sleeping no more than 2.5 feet away from me on both sides. We’re getting told to wash our hands and cover our mouths when we cough. However, that all is irrelevant when it comes to sleeping next to each other... people aren’t covering mouths in their sleep. We have three fans that blow throughout the night in our dormitory, so if someone coughs, those germs can spread quickly.
DOC only recently decided to keep each unit of 80 people separate from other units, I guess that's their version of social distancing. But that's still 80 people eating meals next to each other and spending time in close quarters. At the same time, there are maintenance inmates coming into our space on a daily basis who live in different housing units, and we have people on this unit that go to work in the kitchen with other inmates from other units. They're serving food to other inmates with no barrier between them and the food. When it comes to this facility potentially trying to contain the virus, there are plenty of holes.
Are other inmates in your unit as concerned about COVID-19 as you? What's the general feeling among people you interact with?
I'm in the medical needs unit [a unit where inmates with heightened health issues are houses], so I'm surrounded by people who are at high risk of the disease... people over 60 years old, people with cardiovascular issues, respiratory issues, people undergoing chemotherapy, people hooked up to oxygen tanks. When it comes to the general feeling of people in here.... there is a large population that has come to terms with the fact that they may die in prison.
Do you have any unique medical needs?
Yes, I have asthma and I'm HIV-positive. I have spoken to my various doctors and they have all made it very clear that I need to do everything in my power to keep clear of this virus, because it could kill me. I have literally less than three months until I’m out of prison. But I’m looking at that like it's an eternity when it comes to this virus.
What happens to people who show symptoms of the coronavirus?
The protocol is if they have a fever, they are sent into an isolated discipline segregation unit, also known at solitary confinement. We call it the hole. It's called the hole for a reason... it's a dark windowless room with just a toilet and a bed. We have seven of these cells. Right now, they're holding both sick and healthy people [the healthy people are being held for disciplinary reasons], but they all share the same ventilation system. People are being held for two weeks in these cells, or until their symptoms have disappeared for three days. Staff are telling family members of people who are sick that they're going into the infirmary—but we don't have an infirmary. We have the hole.
What if they don't have a fever?
Oh, then they're sent back out into the general population.
Has anyone been given face masks to wear if they have a cough?
No. Several people tried to cover faces with homemade masks for a while, but guards told them to remove them or they'd be sent to the hole. If I remember correctly, [the guards] said something like, "If we can't wear masks, you can't wear masks."
It sounds like the guards aren't happy with the way things are running, either.
Yes. Some guards are as mad as we are. Several guards have told us they feel unsafe coming to work.
What kind of cleaning have you seen in your unit, and what kind of access do you have to cleaning products?
All of the cleaning is done by inmates. Since this pandemic began, we have been told to use less soap, and we have reduced access to cleaning products. I think they're afraid we'll run out. But that means they're cutting back on sanitation when we need to be doing more.
What kind of changes are you wanting to see?
The facilities don’t have the capacity to distance us. They know it, we know it. That means their only option is early release for these inmates. This is a minimum security prison, a lot of men are in here for a short amount of time for things like violating parole... so many of these guys have already served their time. A lot of people have taken classes in here on how to reenter community in positive way... like parenting classes or anger control classes. They're ready to rejoin society. Now, a lot of us are realizing that that may never happen.
Stroud's been in and out of Oregon's prison system for nearly 14 years. A reformed skinhead, Stroud has been involved in anti-racist advocacy work in the Portland area for the past two decades. Stroud, 51, is also housed in CRCI's medical needs unit.
MERCURY: What's the atmosphere like in your unit right now?
STROUD: I have a heart condition, lung condition, and autoimmune disorder. Since awareness of COVID-19 started, people like me living in this unit have had concerns about being exposed to this. It feels like we're kind of in a fish tank here. We should be protected from the virus, unless someone brings it from the outside—and staff are coming in and out all the time. Some are coughing, and joking about it with us.
Oh, they cough when they're near us and say stuff like, “I’ve got the coronavirus, so you’ve got it now. “ But it’s not so funny.
We heard that anyone with symptoms is being sent to solitary confinement. Are you hearing of folks being isolated in any other spaces?
No. I should point out, there is a ton of other space they can use in this facility. Since all of our classes are cancelled, there are at least four or five classrooms where people could go, and there's a whole other empty unit that has rooms where people could be isolated in. Instead, you're having folks showing up feeling sick being told they're going into solitary confinement.
Has that discouraged people from going to the doctor?
Absolutely. And that scares me. That means you have people who are sick, but not telling anyone, living in the main unit with folks like me, who are at high risk of contracting the virus. Some inmates are even outing sick people to guards to protect themselves.
Do you have a specific doctor you see to treat your autoimmune disorder? What have they told you about the virus?
Yes, I'm lucky that I see my doctor once a week. But, essentially what she's telling me is 'Wash your hands.' She has no real answers. That's the thing, none of the medical professionals here are giving us truthful answers about the severity of this. We’re not stupid—I know the public has a different perception—but we're pretty bright people. We know when we’re being lied to. We know when people are placating us. People deserve to be treated compassionately, including us.
Have you been able to access cleaning supplies?
This is the most frustrating thing that we deal with. My job is dealing with garbage, so I go from unit to unit picking up garbage and cleaning up. But we aren't being given enough cleaning supplies. Supervisors are blaming us for using too much—when we are are using the right amount—and not supplying us with more. We run out of soap in the bathrooms weekly, and it takes a long time for it to be refilled.
What does social distancing look like there?
It’s almost impossible. Right now, as I'm on the phone with you, I have three people around within six feet of me. The only thing I've noticed is that guards have put up tape on the floor marking how far we can stand from them. But nothing to keep us safe. All of the precautious I've seen introduced around social distancing... they have nothing to do with us. Anything that’s being done now is for the staff, if inmates happen to benefit from it, that's not intentional.
Is there any way to report these concerns?
So we can file grievances about issues, and I filed a few regarding the response to this virus a week or two ago. I just got a notice back that the DOC would not accept any grievances that are related to social distancing or following the governor's orders. I don't understand: How are we going to have our voices heard if we can't use the one system we're given to raise concerns?
Is there anything else you want to mention?
I just hope the public knows we aren't exaggerating any of this. I'm sure that's what the DOC officials will say. But this is an extraordinary situation right now that needs no embellishing. I have 70 days left on my sentence. After 13 and a half years in the prison system, I don't want my last 70 days to be a death sentence.