As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, the situation inside Oregon's state prisons—and the consequences inmates face for speaking out—is only getting worse
On May 29, Steven Stroud testified in a federal court case against Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC), alleging that Oregon’s prison system neglected to prevent inmates like him from contracting COVID-19. Two days later, Stroud and another inmate at Portland’s Columbia River Correctional Institute (CRCI) named in the lawsuit were placed in solitary confinement with no explanation why.
When they were released three days later, all of their legal documents and personal notes related to the federal lawsuit were missing from their bunks. Stroud doesn’t believe these frustrating incidents are merely coincidental.
“To me, this looks like witness intimidation,” Stroud told the Mercury on Thursday. “This looks like being retaliated against for our involvement in the court case and for our advocacy work.”
Stroud’s suspicions aren’t disputed by senior officials at the men’s minimum security prison. Instead of siding with the CRCI correctional officer responsible for placing Stroud in the prison’s solitary confinement unit (referred to as “disciplinary segregation”) and cleaning out his bunk, ODOC is investigating its own officer’s conduct.
“I want to be clear, I’m not just looking into allegations,” said Amanda van Arcken, CRCI’s acting security manager. “I’m investigating what took place,” she told the Mercury. “I am investigating the [inmates’] allegations. I have an obligation to do the right thing in this.”
Stroud, who has a rare autoimmune disorder, currently lives in CRCI’s Unit 6—the specified residential unit for inmates with “medical needs,” an umbrella term that includes the elderly, people with physical disabilities, and inmates with serious medical conditions. Unit 6 has the highest concentration of people most at risk of contracting a serious case of COVID-19.
Stroud was one of several inmates who raised initial concerns with CRCI management about a lack of sanitation, protective equipment, and physical distancing in the crowded prison during a global pandemic. Lacking access to soap, clean towels, and safely distanced sleeping quarters, more inmates began to express their fear and frustration as news about COVID-19 infiltrating other prisons began to spread.
In response, van Arcken instituted a weekly check-in between management and two representatives from each of the prison’s eight residential units to allow inmates a chance to air concerns and offer updates on the prison’s COVID-19 response. Stroud and another immunocompromised inmate in the medical needs unit who asked to not be identified were designated to represent Unit 6. (We’ve given the second inmate the pseudonym “Chris” in this story.)
Not long after this group was formed, lawyers with the Oregon Justice Resource Center (OJRC) filed a federal class action lawsuit against ODOC and Gov. Kate Brown for creating conditions in the state’s 14 prisons that have placed thousands at risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19. Chris is one of the seven listed plaintiffs in the case.
It’s this case that Stroud lent his testimony to during a May 29 hearing, where he shared anecdotes of correctional officers retaliating against inmates who spoke out about unsafe conditions and health concerns. It’s something the federal complaint also underscores.
"Fearing retaliation, many other ODOC prisoners are afraid to complain about the conditions in their facilities," the lawsuit reads. "Each of the named plaintiffs recall times when they personally have experienced or witnessed retaliation in the form of transfers to facilities far away from their family members or other relations, loss of privileges, discipline, solitary confinement, curtailment of speech rights, and even physical retribution."
Stroud said he experienced that retaliation just days after delivering his testimony.
According to both Stroud and Chris, tensions began bubbling Sunday in their residential unit after CRCI Correctional Officer Joshua Gray refused to wear a face mask while working in their unit.
“Different guys in our unit were getting upset, they knew that him not wearing a mask put their lives at risk,” Chris told the Mercury on Thursday. “I mean, this is a unit of medically vulnerable people. It makes sense.”
Gray isn’t regularly in Unit 6, but many inmates are familiar with him. Inmates, including Chris, have filed several discrimination complaints and grievances against Gray for what they say is racist behavior. ODOC has confirmed the existence of these complaints, but said they are still under investigation.
Both men describe the inmates’ anger escalating Sunday after Gray repeatedly dismissed their requests to wear a mask. Seen as the unit’s main advocates, Stroud and Chris went to Gray directly to see if they could settle the argument.
“I told him, ‘Hey man, if you want these guys to quiet down, just put your mask on,’” Stroud recalled telling Gray. “And he told me, ‘I don’t have to.’”
Van Arcken said that at CRCI, staff are expected to wear masks anytime they can’t accommodate a six-foot distance between themselves and another person—or when they’re in a residential unit, like Unit 6.
“A housing unit is an [inmate’s] home,” said van Arcken. “The expectation is, if you’re a guest in someone’s home, you are wearing a mask.”
Instead of putting on one of the masks provided to all CRCI staff by their employer, Gray called for backup on his radio.
“All of the sudden, these officers rush in and put both Steve and I in handcuffs,” said Chris. Both men were placed in separate segregation cells, also known as solitary confinement units. It takes hours before either of them are informed why they’re there. According to a disciplinary report filed by Gray, the two inmates were being held for “inciting a riot.”
But those charges didn’t stick long. After hearing about their confinement, van Arcken met individually with Chris and Stroud on Tuesday, to hear their side of the story. Both men were released shortly afterwards. When they returned to their bunks, however, they found that their documents and personal notes used in the federal lawsuit had been confiscated by Gray.
“When they go through your things, [officers] are required to document everything they confiscate,” said Chris. “But none of my paperwork was listed on the form. There’s no evidence they were even here.”
Van Arcken immediately asked Gray to re-submit his report, since she couldn’t find evidence to support his allegations of inciting a riot against the men. Van Arcken told the Mercury she also assigned a CRCI lieutenant to investigate the missing documents, and is personally investigating the circumstances around Stroud and Chris’ confinement.
“I know that they fear their placement is directly related to their involvement in the class action suit,” van Arcken said. “I don’t have any reason to believe it occurred out of retaliation… But I’m still investigating these events.”
To Chris and Stroud, Gray’s actions are a direct example of the kind of retaliation that has kept people from reporting COVID-19 symptoms or raising concerns about their general safety to the administration.
"Fearing retaliation, many other ODOC prisoners are afraid to complain about the conditions in their facilities," the lawsuit reads. "Each of the named plaintiffs recall times when they personally have experienced or witnessed retaliation in the form of transfers to facilities far away from their family.”
Chris and Stroud are grateful for the level of seriousness van Arcken has given their complaints, but they fear it’s temporary relief—Van Arcken’s last day at CRCI is June 5.
Van Arcken usually investigates prison misconduct for the state Office of the Inspector General, but COVID-19 put her work on pause. She volunteered to fill in as CRCI’s top security officer in early April when the facility’s longtime security manager went on leave. Next week she’ll be replaced by the prison's regular security officer, who inmates say they rarely saw. Inmates worry that her departure means they won’t see officers held accountable, or changes made in response to COVID-19.
Juan Chavez, a OJRC lawyer representing inmates in the federal court case, said one administrator looking out for inmates isn’t enough to improve their conditions.
“This incident highlights that there’s a disconnect between what administration knows and what’s actually happening,” said Chavez. “It shows the power dynamic that's at play here… that’s been in play for decades. This is what happens when we don't have accountability from the administration and when we don’t have accountability from the courts.”
Chavez has requested an investigation by the Department of Justice into his clients' seemingly unwarranted discipline and disappearance of legal documents.
Stroud said he sees similarities between his situation and the movement against police brutality gaining momentum outside of the prison walls.
“We're going through the same thing with oppression from people with badges in here as they are out there,” said Stroud. “And, just like out there, people won’t pay attention in here until you raise your voice, until you take a risk and speak out against injustice.”