After two days without soap, inmates at Columbia River Correctional Facility (CRCI) watching COVID-19 spread across Oregon's prison system couldn't keep quiet.
"It blew up here last night," said Steven Stroud, an inmate at CRCI, a minimum security prison located in North Portland. In a phone call with the Mercury, Stroud said that two of the facility's 80-person units clashed with correctional officers yesterday evening, forcing officers to retreat into locked offices.
"People are tired of having inadequate cleaning supplies, of not being given masks, of being afraid to report feeling sick [sick people are reportedly being quarantined in solitary confinement cells], of not having enough soap," said Stroud. "It was a powder keg."
Stroud is one of several Oregon prisoners who've spoken out about how Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) has handled the COVID-19 crisis from within its prison system. With a rare autoimmune disorder, Stroud is also one of the estimated 800 Oregon inmates who has a heath condition that puts them at high risk of contracting a severe case of COVID-19. Last Friday, Stroud told the Mercury that he's afraid that, due to the facility's inability to enforce social distancing rules and inconsistent medical protocols, he may die before his June release date.
Stroud told the Mercury that inmates are "fed up" with guards giving them inaccurate information about COVID-19 precautions and protocol, as the virus begins to spread throughout the prison system. ODOC has reported a total of 8 cases of COVID-19 in Oregon inmates and employees, all at Salem-area facilities.
Another inmate corroborated Stroud's story.
"Guards were telling us that we couldn’t wear masks," said the inmate, who asked for anonymity out of fear of retaliation. "The [two units] stood up and said, 'No, you don’t get to dictate our health. We outnumber you and we’re not going to take it anymore.' Essentially, they forced the guards out of their units for about three hours."
The inmate said that the entire facility went into lockdown during this period of time, with all corrections offices retreating to their offices. They confirmed that at least one CRCI unit had been out of soap for two days straight.
James Hanley, a spokesperson for CRCI, told the Mercury in an email that, "Concerns were expressed on two housing units last evening, but it did not rise to a level where correctional officers locked themselves in an office."
Asked if the facility had withheld soap from inmates, Hanley didn't respond. Instead, he wrote that "soap/paper towel shortages will no longer be an issue."
According to Stroud, CRCI correctional officers aren't as used to violent or aggressive encounters with inmates as their counterparts at higher-security prisons may be.
"We’re in a minimum security facility, which means people aren't in here for very long... and you don’t have the same politics between guards and inmates that you have elsewhere," said Stroud. "That being said, we have people here who are scared and worried—just like everyone on the outside—and they want answers."
A few days ago, Stroud said there was another standoff between guards and inmates within his own unit, which is reserved for inmates with medical needs.
Stroud said some CRCI correction officers have expressed similar frustration with ODOC management for not being given the most up-to-date information.
"It's not the administration who has to deal with the repercussions of sharing false information," said Stroud. "It's the guards."
The majority of ODOC's corrections officers are represented by the Oregon chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Tim Woolery, AFSCME's corrections coordinator, says he hasn't heard any concerns raised about lack of information. But there are other issues that correction officers have raised to its union representatives since COVID-19 began spreading across Oregon—including a lack of medical masks and other protective gear.
"A prison is a place where it's a challenge to do social distancing," said Woolery. "And it's impossible for corrections officers who work security to telework."
In March, AFSCME successfully negotiated with the state to allow officers with medical issues that put them at high-risk of contracting COVID-19 extended sick leave. But that comes with its own tradeoff: A reduced number of corrections staff means other staff are being asked to work longer hours.
Woolery said he's concerned that ODOC's decision to prohibit in-person visitors and limit inmates' recreation time due to the virus might put officers in a more precarious situation.
"Limiting those activities definitely impacts inmates' ability to cope," he said. "Anytime something like this happens... stress and tension levels rise."
Inmates and criminal justice advocates have called on Gov. Kate Brown to release inmates who are nearing the end of their sentence to reduce the population size of Oregon's prisons and prevent further spread of COVID-19. On Monday, seven Oregon prisoners filed a lawsuit against Brown and ODOC, accusing state officials of subjecting inmates to cruel and unusual punishment by not adequately protecting prisoners from COVID-19. Brown has since requested information from ODOC "related to the possible early release of inmates," according to the Oregonian.
The news that Brown is looking into releasing inmates gives many prisoners hope.
"We're hoping that's a first step," said the anonymous inmate. "It feels like the state is gambling with our lives. We can't take that."
Asked what would happen if conditions didn't improve at his facility, Stroud hesitated.
"If things don't change, they’re looking at creating a situation that will create very big security issues," he said. "What happened [last night] will look paltry in comparison. If the state needs a sign that they have to take action, this is it."