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Oregon Department of Corrections

Portland's Columbia River Correction Institute (CRCI) has reported its first case of COVID-19 among its incarcerated population.

On Sunday, officials at the men’s minimum security prison informed residents that at least two inmates have tested positive for the virus in CRCI's Unit 2—one of eight 80-person housing units at the North Portland facility. The unit was placed in lockdown. By Monday morning, Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) said that COVID-19 had been detected in "several different housing units." It's not confirmed how many residents have now tested positive.

"It's nerve-racking," said Joshua Hedrick, an inmate in CRCI's Unit 6, which is reserved for medically vulnerable residents. "I'm about 30 days from my release date. I don't want to bring anything home to my family... I just want to get out of here."

Hedrick was placed in solitary confinement in March after showing symptoms of COVID-19. He was never offered a COVID-19 test. After three "awful" days in isolation without access to a shower or warm water, Hedrick was released back into Unit 6 dorms. Hedrick said the threat of solitary confinement had kept many other residents from reporting coronavirus-like symptoms to medical staff.

Hedrick said he was particularly concerned Sunday because an officer who was previously working in Unit 2 had transferred to Unit 6 that morning.

"They put Unit 2 inmates in lockdown, but not the staff," Hedrick asked. "That seems wrong."

While no CRCI inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 before last weekend, at least five CRCI staff members have been diagnosed with the virus since March. According to ODOC protocol, all CRCI staff have their temperature checked daily before entering the facility.

Jennifer Black, a spokesperson for ODOC, confirmed the COVID-19 outbreak in an email to the Mercury. Black said the positive cases have put CRCI on "Tier 4" status, a classification that puts the entire facility in quarantine for two weeks. "Movement within the facility will be limited as much as possible," Black wrote. But this doesn't apply to staff.

"Officers will be continuing to do their jobs, and that may mean moving between units," she said.

CRCI residents began pushing staff to adhere to COVID-19 regulations in April, after raising concerns about access to cleaning products, personal hygiene supplies, and face masks. While this effort forced several changes, residents are still sleeping in an open-floor dormitory with beds three feet apart from one another—a factor that inmates say undermines any other work to prevent the virus' spread.

Steven Stroud was one of the Unit 6 residents who led the April campaign to improve conditions inside CRCI. Stroud was released from CRCI over the summer, but has continued to advocate for the incarcerated men from the outside.

"They've had the opportunity to clear up these problems before that would have prevented this outbreak," Stroud told the Mercury Monday. "I'd be terrified if I was back in there now. Being completely helpless."

Stroud is one of several CRCI inmates named in a federal class action lawsuit that was filed against ODOC and Gov. Kate Brown in April. The suit, filed by Oregon Justice Resource Center (OJRC) attorneys, accuses the state government of creating conditions in Oregon's 14 prisons that have placed thousands at risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19. A federal judge dismissed OJRC's preliminary injunction request to release medically vulnerable inmates in June, concluding that the decision was Brown's to make.

As of now, Brown has commuted the sentences of 124 inmates—out of an estimated statewide population of 12,900—due to the pandemic.

OJRC attorney Juan Chavez said the news of an outbreak in CRCI was "already decided" when Brown refused to release more at-risk inmates at the start of the pandemic.

"This is a crisis," said Chavez. "We're well on our way to see some real tragedies. I think we're recognizing the limits of the legal system."

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Chavez said a federal judge is expected to rule on a request from ODOC to dismiss the class action case this week. ODOC is arguing that prison staff are protected from litigation by "qualified immunity," a judicial standard that shields public officials from liability if they violate a person's constitutional rights.

With this standard in place, Stroud believes there's little hope for ever holding prison employees accountable for neglecting to stop the spread of COVID-19.

"The fact is that [inmates] have no immunity to this virus," he said. "And the guards, the people who are able to spread the virus, have qualified immunity. That is allowing them to kill people. Tell me, how is that just?"