Chris Baumgardner's headaches began a day after being released from prison. Then it was the numbness in his fingertips. Then, shortness of breath. Two days after leaving Columbia River Correction Institute (CRCI), Baumgardner, 53, got a call from the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC) informing him that he had tested positive for COVID-19 before his release.
"I lost it," Baumgardner recalled in an interview with the Mercury. "I had just spent the past two days with my family, friends... which means I had exposed the people closest to me to a deadly disease."
Baumgarner said CRCI tested him for COVID-19 on December 4, just two days before his release date. According to ODOC, these optional tests are supposed to take place at least 10 days prior to release. At the time, Baumgarner expressed concern that he wouldn't know the results of the test before leaving the Portland facility—but, he said, a nurse reassured him that he shouldn't worry about it.
"He told me, 'COVID-19 isn't here, you'll be fine,'" Baumgardner recalled. The nurse did not recommend he quarantine after leaving CRCI until the results come in, according to Baumgardner. (A ODOC spokesperson says that this isn't mandatory.)
It was the nurse's confidence that encouraged him to visit with family—including his medically vulnerable wife—immediately after leaving CRCI on December 6. On December 7, a day before Baumgardener got the call about his test results, CRCI reported its first positive COVID-19 case among inmates at the prison.
Now, two weeks later, CRCI has reported more than 80 cases.
The minimum security men's prison is one of the last Oregon prisons to report positive COVID-19 cases in its inmate population. But Baumgardner and other CRCI inmates said they believe the virus' arrival was inevitable.
"We knew it was coming," Baumgardner said, pointing to the mounting number of cases among CRCI staff and DOC's practice of allowing new inmates to transfer to CRCI from facilities that have a COVID-19 outbreak. "We’re not stupid, we’re just inmates."
According to DOC spokesperson Jennifer Black, inmates at the prison are still sleeping in group dormitories, meaning 80 beds crammed into a single room, spaced three feet apart. Black said this layout is required for correctional officers to adequately supervise the men.
Tommie Smith, another inmate at CRCI, told the Mercury that, every night, he wakes up to the sound of coughing in his dorm—including a man in a neighboring bunk.
"I don't get it, am I supposed to sleep while wearing a mask?" Smith, 36, said. "That seems unsafe."
Smith, who was recently hospitalized for pneumonia, said he's been worried about contracting the virus since March. But not everyone in his prison unit takes COVID-19 as seriously.
"It's the same as it is on the outside," Smith said. "Some people think it's a hoax. So they don't wear masks, or social distance in the dorm."
Black said this layout is required for correctional officers to adequately supervise the men. Black also said that at least 26 inmates have been transferred into CRCI since the facility reported its first positive COVID-19 case.
It's these practices and others that motivated a group of CRCI inmates to petition CRCI leadership in April for better safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the facility. Some of their requests—like more access to soap and masks—were met, which may explain how CRCI avoided a coronavirus outbreak longer than other state prisons. But the inmates' asks to pause transfers from infected facilities and create more isolated sleeping spaces went unanswered.
Christopher Schneider, 33, was one of the CRCI inmates in the group who campaigned for better treatment in April. Schneider, who has asthma, suffered a collapsed lung in early 2020 from a previous injury, making him particularly anxious about contracting a virus that attacks the respiratory system. In April, Schneider expressed frustration when CRCI leadership responded to his group's concerns about guards not following COVID-19 protocols by giving his unit a Playstation 4 and access to new movie channels.
“They’re giving us things we didn’t ask for in place of the urgent changes we’ve requested,” Schneider told the Mercury at the time. “It’s easy to put a rat in a maze with cheese at the end... but we have to ask why we’re in a maze in the first place. We aren’t trying to play a game.”
On December 20, Schneider tested positive for COVID-19.
"I'm a ball of emotions right now," said Schneider's girlfriend, Kelly Mitchell, who spoke to the Mercury on the phone Monday.
Schneider called Mitchell on Monday morning from CRCI's medical unit, where he described having trouble breathing—along with a headache, fever, and nausea. He said medical staff have stopped by occasionally to check his oxygen levels.
"His spirits are high, and he says he thinks he's on the tail end of being sick," Mitchell said. "But I can't trust DOC to do right."
Schneider has still been working hard to protect himself from COVID-19, despite CRCI's limitations. Mitchell cried as she described his attempts to stay healthy.
"Just last week, he risked disciplinary action to go wash his bedsheets in the laundry room," said Mitchell. "Just to wash his sheets! DOC is only worried about themselves, not these men."
Schneider's not scheduled to leave prison until January 2022, and does not qualify for early release.
Since June, Gov. Kate Brown has approved early release for a number of DOC inmates due to the pandemic. To qualify, inmates must have served at least half of their sentence, have a record of good conduct for the past 12 months, and have a “suitable” housing plan upon release. They also can't be serving a sentence for a violent crime against another person. Brown has also prioritized inmates who are medically vulnerable.
Mitchell suspects Schneider's recent disciplinary issues at CRCI cost him a chance at early release.
According to the Oregonian, Brown has so far approved early release for 260 inmates due to COVID-19. As of December 21, 1,812 Oregon inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, and 19 of them have died.
A federal class action lawsuit is trying to keep more vulnerable inmates from dying behind bars to COVID-19. The April suit accuses Brown and DOC of creating conditions in state prisons that violate inmates' constitutional protections against cruel and usual punishment. A federal judge dismissed the state's attempt to throw out the case last week.
Baumgardner said he plans on suing DOC for negligence after he recovers from the coronavirus. While he says his sore throat makes eating feel like "swallowing glass," Baumgardner said he considers himself lucky for being able to ride out the virus in the comfort of his own home.
Smith thinks about his wife and 1-year-old daughter at home in Lebanon, Oregon, when he hears the rattling coughs of his fellow inmates.
"I just want to get home to them," he said. "I get that we’re here for a reason, but I don’t think enough is being done to treat us like human beings. I’m tired."