A group of Oregon prisoners have filed a class action lawsuit against the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) and Governor Kate Brown for creating conditions in state prisons that violate inmates' constitutional rights. The plaintiffs claim that the inability to provide appropriate medical care and allow for social distancing at Oregon's 14 state prisons have placed thousands at risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19.

“This disease has the potential to wreak havoc in an environment such as a prison," said Juan Chavez, an attorney with the Oregon Justice Resource Center (OJRC) who is representing the plaintiffs. "People who live in Oregon’s prisons should not have to pay with their lives for the failure to take sensible steps to protect them.”

The seven prisoners named as plaintiffs are particularly vulnerable for contracting a serious COVID-19 infection, either for their advanced age or medical condition. The class action lawsuit goes further to include all people in ODOC custody who "are most at risk of dying or suffering from severe illness from COVID-19" as plaintiffs in this case.

The lawsuit, filed Monday evening, argues that the crowded prison dormitories, food halls, and recreation areas don't allow prisoners to effectively follow the state's social distancing guidelines. Several inmates have shown symptoms of COVID-19, have allegedly been denied the ability to safely quarantine, and haven't been given face masks to wear to prevent the potential spread of the virus between other inmates.

The lawsuit cites five different known cases of COVID-19 among ODOC employees and inmates. However, it claims, ODOC has not quarantined anyone who's come in contact with those known carriers. Plaintiffs also argue that ODOC facilities have not been sanitized with antibacterial disinfectant approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Prisoners are worried they'll be retaliated against for speaking out about these potentially fatal problems.

"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."

Concerns raised by ODOC prisoners reflect those raised by two Oregon prison inmates who spoke with the Mercury last week. The Mercury's reporting is cited in the lawsuit.

Lawyers representing the prisoners accuse ODOC officials and Brown of violating the US Constitution's Eighth Amendment, which guarantees that prisoners may not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.

"Here, the state actors required to provide adequate healthcare to the medically vulnerable plaintiffs have been deliberately indifferent to the serious risk COVID-19 poses to them," the complaint reads.

It also charges the state officials of violating the Oregon Constitution's protections against cruel and usual punishment for incarcerated Oregonians.

The complaint requests ODOC immediately institute COVID-19 testing for all inmates with symptoms associated with the virus, allow people who've come in contact with people who've tested positive for COVID-19 to self-isolate, allow for social distancing within the prisons, improve access to CDC-approved cleaning supplies, and provide face masks and other protections to anyone with COVID-19 symptoms.

"If other remedies prove inadequate after the defendants have had a reasonable time to comply," the complaint continues, "a three judge panel should reduce the number of prisoners so that adequate social distancing, quarantining of suspected cases, medical isolation of confirmed cases, and safe housing for class members can be accomplished."

Several governors across the US, including New York's Andrew Cuomo, Kentucky's Andy Beshear, and Ohio's Mike DeWine, have ordered their state prisons to release low-level offenders to lessen the spread of COVID-19.

Brown has not.

As governor, Brown already has executive power over the state's prison system. But, as the lawsuit mentions, her authority is extended under the current statewide emergency declaration, which gives her the right to "suspend provisions of any order or rule of any state agency, if [she] determines and declares that strict compliance with the provisions of the order or rule would in any way prevent, hinder or delay mitigation of the effects of the emergency," among other things. Because of her authority over ODOC, prisoners have been urging Oregonians to call and write Brown to demand she improve their living conditions.

"Everyone in here knows that the governor is the only person that can do anything about this," one inmate, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Mercury on Friday.

This is the second class action lawsuit filed by OJRC attorneys against law enforcement's inadequate response to COVID-19. On March 25, Chavez filed a class action complaint against Columbia County Jail's "indifferent" response to COVID-19's potential spread within its facility, on behalf of high-risk inmates.