ONTARIO — Oregon Department of Corrections on Friday denied a public records request filed by the Argus Observer for video footage from inside Snake River Correctional Institution pertaining to correctional officers not wearing face coverings while in close proximity to inmates. However, in that same letter, it was stated that in their own review of the 10 hours of video footage requested it was found that staff at the prison were not always in compliance.
According to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, the Oregon Department of Corrections has the responsibility to ensure employees follow rules and policies.
ODOC’s response was to a standing request sent on July 21 for video footage to see whether correctional officers are following social distancing mandates. The request was sent after the newspaper received multiple complaints from family members of inmates, as well as inmates, themselves, that officers not wearing masks while less than 6-feet away from inmates was an ongoing issue in spite of the pandemic.
On July 30, SRCI officials contacted the newspaper seeking further information about the request, and it was explained that the newspaper would like footage from inside both the minimum and maximum facility in order to look through it and track how many times correctional officers were in frame without a mask in close proximity of inmates.
“At the outset, we acknowledge the public’s interest in seeking information about staff compliance with wearing face masks when six feet of physical distancing is not possible during the current novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic,” reads the letter sent to the newspaper on Friday. “We have taken this into consideration in reviewing your public records request. During our review of requested institution video footage, we acknowledge that there is video footage that depicts some instances in which correctional staff who were not able to maintain six feet of physical distancing are not wearing face masks as required by the Department’s policy.”
In the letter, DOC explained its decision was based on those records being exempt under ORS 192.335(5) and ORS 192.345(23) in order to maintain internal order and security, and the safety of staff and adults in custody that work or live in our correctional institutions.”
As such, DOC determined in its review of the requested footage that “if disclosed, would allow adults in custody to avoid surveillance and permit identification of potential weaknesses in the department security measures.”
The Argus Observer intends to appeal the ODOC decision to not release the video footage, and has reached out to legal counsel.
Infection Prevention Team was at SRCI on Thursday
In a response regarding what kind of follow-up action was being taken at SRCI regarding face-coverings, Jennifer Black, communications manager for ODOC, indicated things have been improving.
“Since the date of your request, Snake River Correctional Institution (SRCI) has diligently worked to educate our employees and the adults in custody (AICs) on the importance of wearing face coverings and we have seen a marked improvement,” reads her reply. “SRCI continues to educate employees with verbal briefings on all three shifts, informational posters, and managers engaging in daily conversations about masks and other ways to stop the spread of COVID-19.”
Additionally, Black said “any employee who openly violates the directive on face coverings is investigated.”
She said with the goal being zero positive COVID-19 cases in SRCI and a return to normal operations across the state. As such, an “Infection Prevention Team” has been established, and is being used to assess implementing preventative controls.
“This group is external to SRCI and visited the institution yesterday. The team was using an assessment tool developed from guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Oregon Health Authority, and our own AOC/Executive Team, and adapted by DOC’s Chief Audit Administrator.”
Black states that the team’s conclusions were largely positive. A list of their findings, according to Black, follows:
• Staff are diligent in the symptom screening.
• The vast majority of staff and AICs practice social distancing when possible within the limitations of the facility.
• The vast majority of staff wear face coverings when social distancing is not possible.
• The executive team takes COVID-19 risks seriously.
Governor expects all Oregonians to abide
Currently, ODOC staff, in line with Brown’s mandate regarding COVID-19, must follow social distancing measures at any ODOC facility, which includes wearing a mask if 6-feet of physical distancing cannot be maintained.
The Argus reached out to Brown for a comment regarding state employees not following the mandate.
“Governor Brown expects all Oregonians — including those who work for state agencies — to abide by all applicable guidelines and requirements regarding the use of face coverings,” reads an email from Liz Merah, press secretary for the governor. “My understanding is DOC has implemented their own guidelines — in collaboration with the Oregon Health Authority — regarding the use of face coverings within its institutions. All employees should adhere to those guidelines, and DOC has the responsibility to ensure employees abide by agency rules and policies.”
In the phone conference call with the newspaper on July 30, Jill Curtis at SRCI said, “Oregon Department of Corrections has a commitment to make people feel comfortable.”
In addition to an email link on the DOC’s COVID-19 response page, there “is a whole team of people in Salem working almost full-time,” responding to complaints. She encouraged anybody with complaints to reach out to DOC.
However, in multiple complaints received by the newspaper, family members and inmates say they wish to remain anonymous, citing retaliation as a reason why.