At 11 am Tuesday morning, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown approached a podium in a Portland government building to deliver an update to the public on the state’s response to COVD-19. In a crowded room just six miles north of Brown’s press conference, at least a hundred men incarcerated at Columbia River Correctional Institute (CRCI) sat quietly around communal TV sets watching her speak.
In the weeks and days prior, these inmates, their families, their lawyers, and their supporters had sent numerous messages to Brown’s office asking for her to reduce the population size of Oregon’s 14 prisons to prevent the spread of COVID-19. A group of civil rights attorneys had also filed a federal lawsuit demanding Brown release Oregon inmates who were nearing the end of their sentence. In the past week, more than a dozen inmates and prison staff in Oregon had tested positive for the virus.
“The question was, do I plan to early release adults in custody as a result of the COVID-19 crisis?” Brown said, responding to a reporter's question. “The answer is no.”
Joshua Hedrick was one of the forty inmates in his unit watching Brown’s announcement. After hearing the news, Hedrick said, there was “a violent reaction” in the group.
“We feel abandoned... We’re scared,” he said. “I’m scared.”
Weeks of growing uncertainty and fear bubbled over last week at CRCI, a minimum security men’s prison in Northeast Portland, after a corrections officer brushed off inmates’ questions about their lack of facemasks and reliable access to soap. For many who’d had their questions about health care and safety related to COVID-19 repeatedly ignored by prison staff, it was the final straw. The inaction ignited a verbal protest within two 80-person housing units.
"We feel abandoned... We’re scared. I’m scared.”
This pushback inspired CRCI administrators to set up meetings—the first of their kind at the prison—between leadership and two inmate representatives from each of the prison’s eight housing units, where inmates can air their concerns, have their questions answered, and then relay information to other inmates. CRCI Superintendent Nichole Brown says these meetings are meant to act as a sort of “town hall.”
“It gives us structure to have meaningful dialog between adults in custody and leadership representatives,” Brown said.
But prison officials’ attempt to calm the anxious group of incarcerated men seemed to only worsen many inmates’ fears. The Mercury spoke on the phone with five men who serve as inmate representatives in these meetings. All of them expressed disappointment and anger with how their pressing concerns have been received.
“It wasn’t serious to them, they treated us like kids who didn’t know better,” said inmate Skyler Floro, who’s representing CRCI’s Unit 5. “It was demeaning. They called us in to ask for our questions, but they didn’t want to give us any answers. It was such a disappointment.”
In preparation for their first meeting, the 16 inmate representatives put together a list of eight concerns and requests related to how the prison was addressing COVID-19. The list included asks for access to reliable cleaning supplies, an easing on punishments for petty infractions (like penalties for not wearing a belt, or walking on the wrong side of the hall), and allowing prisoners—who sleep two feet apart from one another in an open, 80-person dormitory—to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
One inmate representative, who asked the Mercury to remain anonymous, said he was interrupted multiple times by administrators while he was reading the list aloud in the meeting. Two other inmates also told the Mercury they observed this happening.
“We felt unheard, but also disrespected,” said the anonymous inmate. “As far as feedback, we basically were told, again and again, ‘I don’t need to explain this to you, just know that it is being handled.’”
CRCI has addressed some of the requests. As of Saturday, all CRCI inmates had been given cloth face masks, sewn by CRCI prisoners. Brown said that administrators are now holding pre-shift meetings with prison correctional officers, to ensure that they have the most up-to-date information about rules related to COVID-19—something the prisoners had requested after being penalized by officers who didn’t know about policy changes. And, Brown added, staff have added new protocol to make sure the facility doesn’t run out of soap or cleaning supplies.
"It was demeaning. They called us in to ask for our questions, but they didn’t want to give us any answers."
Inmates mention a few other changes, like staff giving them a Playstation 4 and access to new movie channels.
For prisoners who fear a serious COVID-19 case could kill them, these small offerings sting.
“They’re giving us things we didn’t ask for in place of the urgent changes we’ve requested,” said Christopher Schneider, who represents Unit 4 in the group. “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.”
Schneider suffered a collapsed lung twice this year already, a result of injuries sustained from a stabbing. He knows his health issues make him an easy target for COVID-19. And working in the prison’s laundry facility—where he isn’t given gloves or a medical mask to wear while handling dirty laundry—only underscores that risk. Schneider hoped that meeting with prison staff would fix some of his concerns.
“It only made me more anxious, really,” said Schneider. “It was purely cosmetic. It’s meant to make the inmates in our units feel better, that their voices are being heard. But I’m having to go back and tell them that they’re not.”
Brown told the Mercury Monday that many of the inmates’ inquiries are complicated, and require collaboration between different areas of the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC).
“We are in the infancy stages of gathering responses,” she said. “Some questions are more complex than others.”
Yet it’s the complex requests, like how to treat inmates who show symptoms of COVID-19, that inmates believe are most critical to address.
Joshua Hedrick was one of the first inmates at CRCI to be placed in solitary confinement when he showed signs of contracting COVID-19 in March. With a fever, cough, and constant headache, Hedrick had tested negative for the flu. He wasn’t offered a COVID-19 test. Instead, he was ordered to change into a jumpsuit reserved for people facing discipline and placed in solitary confinement—referred to as “disciplinary segregation” by ODOC and “the hole” by inmates. He wasn’t allowed to bring in any personal items or clothing. During his three-day stay, Hedrick had access to a bar of soap and a sink with only cold water. He was allowed one shower and was checked on twice a day by a nurse who, according to Hedrick, wasn’t changing her gloves between inspecting different patients in the solitary unit. He wasn’t able to call his family or girlfriend to tell them what was going on.
“It felt no different than being in hole for some disciplinary reason,” said Hedrick. “It was awful.”
Now recovered, Hedrick said he’s aware of several men with severe COVID-19 symptoms who refuse to tell doctors they’re sick to avoid being placed in a solitary cell. Hedrick is not a member of the representative group.
In their meetings with CRCI leadership, inmates have asked that sick prisoners be placed in “non-punitive” medical isolation—or, anywhere but solitary confinement—where they can access a phone and be allowed small comforts like soup, hot water, and personal items.
That’s not going to happen, according to CRCI administrators. Amanda van Arken, CRCI’s acting security manager, said that the solitary unit is the only area in the facility where staff have bed space to “safely” house people.
“Correctional facilities were not designed with a global pandemic in mind,” she told the Mercury, echoing a line repeated by other ODOC officials over the past few weeks.
Inmate representatives have also asked for ODOC to stop transferring new prisoners into their facility, especially from Salem-area prisons where COVID-19 has been detected. Jennifer Black, a spokesperson for ODOC, said that, as long as new inmates continue to be booked in Oregon prisons, the transfers will continue.
“We’re legally obligated to move people around to make space for intakes,” Black said.
Another request: Allowing inmates to be seen for medical issues not related to COVID-19. According to van Arken, medical staff are only seeing inmates who show signs of coronavirus or have an emergency health need—“something that they’d go to urgent care for.”
“In the community [outside of CRCI], health care providers have rolled back the opportunity for people to be seen for routine check-ups to preserve [Personal Protective Equipment],” said van Arken. “We’re doing the same in here.”
But, van Arken adds, CRCI is not running low on PPE. Doctors are just “preparing for the long game.”
"We’re a number, we’re cattle. It’s always been like this here.”
Inmate Gabriel Whitford is disappointed, but not surprised, by the prison’s response to the outbreak. Whitford, who’s been incarcerated in Oregon prisons since 2015, said he’s witnessed situations where one inmate’s illness spreads down an entire housing unit—and back through again.
“They don’t do anything to stop illnesses spreading in here.” said Whitford. “That’s not their concern. We’re a number, we’re cattle. It’s always been like this here.”
Whitford also represents CRCI Unit 4 inmates in the meetings with leadership. He said he’s worried that administration is simply using the meetings to target outspoken people in each unit.
“I’m afraid the purpose of these meetings is for them to collect intel to later shut us down and silence us,” said Whitford.
Schneider shares Whitford’s concerns. He told the Mercury that he considered dropping out of the group over the weekend because of this.
“But I think it’s better to be as close as I can to the problem than waiting for answers on the outside,” he said.
On Tuesday, some of the men reported that certain correctional officers have already begun to retaliate against them for their membership in the leadership meetings.
“There is a core of [correctional officers] trying to bust up the group through tacit threats or implied threats of us being locked up or shipped elsewhere,” said Steven Stroud, an inmate representing CRCI’s Unit 6. “We were worried this would happen.”
“I don’t have anyone to talk to. I just want to be with my family right now.”
As the men wait for answers, tensions continue to rise.
To limit the spread of COVID-19, CRCI administrators have cancelled all outside programming, limited inmate recreation time and meal times, paused all in-person visitation hours, and rolled back access to mental health counselors.
The changes have left most inmates crowded into small day rooms, playing cards, watching TV, and reading the news on tablet computers provided by ODOC. Wait times to use the phone have skyrocketed: Two inmates mentioned skipping meals to get a chance to call their family.
These restrictions have been detrimental to prisoners who rely on going to church, attending substance abuse meetings or anger management classes, and participating in other community-building programs. Inmates’ participation in these courses increases the likelihood of them being released early on parole.
“I do rely on those programs,” said Whitford, who is enrolled in classes focused on “liberation literacy” and communication skills. “I made a commitment to rehabilitate myself, and it’s important to me to keep that up.”
Whitford, who has PTSD, is also struggling without his behavioral health counselor on site.
“I am scared,” he said. “I don’t have anyone to talk to. I just want to be with my family right now.”
Asked what he’s doing to temporarily cope with his growing anxieties behind bars, he said: “I put my headphones on and turn the volume up and write and draw…. I do everything I can to block this all out.”