ONTARIO — On Friday afternoon, the newspaper received a tip that someone had observed two security guards in uniform from Snake River Correctional Institution at an outdoor eatery standing in close proximity to each other as well as the person who was taking their order. The guards, according to the caller, were not safely distanced from each other or the worker at the eatery, nor were they wearing face coverings.
The issue at hand is that two days prior, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown expanded public safety measures aimed at stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19. Now, whether indoors or outdoors, people must keep 6 feet between themselves and others not in their household, and must wear face coverings when that is not possible.
Additionally, there is an outbreak of positive COVID-19 cases at the prison, with Oregon Department of Corrections reporting as of July 20 that 24 staff members and 120 inmates had tested positive. It’s worth noting these numbers have not changed since July 16.
Since the pandemic began — and even before the outbreak of COVID-19 at the prison near the beginning of the month — tips and calls of concerns have been coming in to the newspaper as well as officials at Snake River Correctional Institution.
Concerns for the community
With the recent outbreak of COVID-19 at the prison, our caller cited concern that guards not wearing masks may spread the virus into the community.
While she couldn’t speak to what other law enforcement agencies have done about COVID-19 mandates and uniformed employees, Amber Campbell, public information officer for SRCI says Oregon DOC employees do have a dress code that they have to comply with. Furthermore, she said, compliance while wearing the uniform is expected even when off the clock.
“Since the mask mandate came out, we have not changed the dress code,” she said. However, “anywhere in the community, county or state, the expectation is staff will comply with local or state-wide directives wherever they are at.”
This would include Brown’s orders and mandates as they relate to the pandemic, confirmed Campbell.
According to Campbell, sometimes they receive a complaint that is not related to COVID-19 concerns, such as someone seeing a correctional officer in uniform at the store purchasing alcohol. This is disallowed for SRCI guards, she says adding the rule is “pretty standard for any law enforcement or uniform-based group,” according to Campbell.
As for those types of concerns, she says “we get issues, but not a ton.”
Concerned citizens who see something are urged to get ahold of SRCI officials.
However, Campbell adds that in order for them to follow up with the right correctional officer on any community observations, officials would need to know specifically who it is.
“Almost 600 of our staff are uniformed,” she said explaining there are 870 employees in all. “We can’t go poll our staff and say ‘Where were you?’”
Good information they could use to follow up on a complaint would include something like a guard’s first initial and last name, which is on a name tag affixed to the uniform, Campbell said.
Concerns for inmates
While masks are provided for inmates, some of them or their family members have reported to SRCI and the newspaper that at times guards are not wearing face coverings.
According to ODOC, 50/50 poly cotton blend masks were made at the beginning of April, with inmates having been offered two and employees one.
“At this time, employees and adults in custody are expected to wear a mask when six feet of social distancing cannot be maintained,” reads information posted on ODOC’s website.
When it comes to the pandemic, unmasked guards is one the biggest complaints coming into officials from inmates’ families, according to Campbell.
Another concern expressed for inmates at the prison, she said, was the “big bump” of positive cases in a short amount of time since the discovery of the first, giving the impression to some that the virus was spreading out of control.
In explaining how that happened, Campbell said the first thing to understand is that the prison consists of two separate but co-located operations: SRCI, which is a medium facility and houses upwards of 3,000 inmates, and SRCI minimum facility, which has 166 beds. The latter of these is a dorm setting where there are no cells. Instead, Campbell described it as similar to a military barracks, or those depictions of prisons commonly seen in movies and TV shows, in which bunkbeds are grouped together in one room and inmates have containers for personal property. This is where the majority of the positive cases were, according to Campbell.
In the medium facility, which is “a whole different operation” consisting of cells which house one to two inmates, each getting their own designated space for personal property, such as toiletries or books.
“We’ve only had 13 cases there,” Campbell said, indicating the dorm had more than 100 cases.
“In a dorm setting, it’s all good until illnesses or viral outbreaks,” she said, explaining that it is harder to control in shared open areas. “So that’s why we had that big bump.”
Of the 13 cases in the medium facility, Campbell said they were able to track 12 back to one housing unit, “that is, we feel, contained now.”
A request for a sampling of video footage from Snake River Correctional Institution over the last two weeks to view and determine how many times guards were in view without masks on is pending with Oregon Department of Corrections.
SRCI is now one of three facilities throughout the state in which the entire facility is on a 14-day quarantine. As such, the facility has become a focal point. Wherever the concern comes from, whether friends and family members of inmates of people within the community, Campbell said, people are urged to call and let them know.
“We want people to be aware that if there is a report or observation that we want to be good community partners and a good neighbor,” she said. “That’s really important to us.”