Whether COVID-19 has rampantly spread throughout the largest prison in Oregon due to correctional officers not wearing masks when in close proximity to inmates remains unknown. However many — including Oregon Department of Corrections itself — have reported noncompliance from officers at Snake River Correctional Institution when it comes to social distancing rules mandated by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown. Most recently, an employee at the facility went on the record with The Argus Observer about the situation there, indicating that the issue of noncompliance was heaviest among correctional officers.
Excerpts from interviews and responses from Oregon DOC regarding those allegations are included in this article.
Current COVID situation at SRCI
As of Sept. 1, SRCI remains listed as one of two facilities on a Tier 4 status, a designation by Oregon DOC as it relates to containing the spread of COVID-19 within its facilities. Tier 4 is the highest designation and places the entire facility on quarantine for 14 days. SRCI has been under quarantine since June 30 and the 14-day timespan has been extended many times over, as it renews for each positive case associated with the facility. The most recent extension was the result of an employee testing positive, which put the facility under quarantine through Sept. 14, according to information received on Thursday afternoon.
In the past month, the number of positive cases among staff at Snake River Correctional Institution has more than doubled, and has spread out to 1.7 times more inmates: On Aug. 5, positive cases among staff and inmates were at 45 and 145, respectively; those numbers as of Sept. 2 sit at 95 and 251, with 58 more tests pending for inmates. One inmate who tested positive with COVID-19 died on Aug. 12, and according to information from Oregon State Police, the medical examiner also ruled the cause of death as COVID-19.
In July, the newspaper started receiving reports from both inmates and loved ones of inmates that correctional officers at SRCI, as well as other Oregon DOC facilities across the state, were regularly not wearing face coverings when standing closer than 6-feet from inmates.
In addition, some officers were observed in public places, such as eateries and grocery stores, not complying with those mandates.
‘Concerned’ staffer reaches out
On Aug. 7, after the Argus published a story that the Oregon DOC in its denial of a records request admitted that in its own review of footage at the facility they had seen 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.”
Oregon DOC officials furthermore asserted that since the newspaper’s initial records request there had been “marked improvement” at the facility, as they had “diligently worked to educate” both employees and inmates on the importance of wearing masks and other ways to stop the spread of the virus.
The day that story published, an employee at SRCI contacted the paper to speak in-depth about the situation there; saying the picture painted by officials was not so transparent and offered to “fill in some gaps.” As inmates and their loved ones had all requested in their complaints to the newspaper, the employee requested only to speak to the newspaper on the condition of anonymity, saying that the culture can be “very vindictive among staff, putting his job at risk.” The Argus Observer only agreed to speak with this person after being able to confirm employment records.
“DOC is a very politically run, cliquey environment that if you report things like that, or abuse or neglect that people steer clear of helping you in the future,” he said.
Higher-ups ‘setting good examples’
The anonymous employee said that overall, the captains and sergeants and others in higher-up positions at SRCI have been “setting good examples” and “doing the right stuff” when it comes to wearing masks and keeping a safe distance from others. However, he said, “as soon as they leave, all the regular correctional officers take their masks off.” Because of this, he didn’t believe that the supervisors were generally aware “of how much the scene changes as soon as they walk out.”
He said officers were often doing this around inmates during day to day operations in the halls and in the yard, as well as in large groups of 15 to 30 amongst themselves while in places such as the break room, a long corridor when signing out and a sally port process that he describes as about the size of an elevator, “where they cram you in a tight room,” and where masks have to be removed for facial identity purposes.
Oregon DOC confirmed in an email on Friday that staff go through a Master Control sally port upon exiting, saying only five people are allowed in at a time, and when more than one person is in there, masks must be worn.
In the break rooms, Oregon DOC says “capacity has been decreased at all institutions, and staff have been directed to wear a mask in break rooms when 6 feet of social distancing is not possible — as is required anywhere in the institution.
Do officials at SRCI give heads up on inspections?
In August, Oregon DOC said an infection prevention team had visited SRCI, and that the results of their findings were largely positive.
The anonymous staffer told the newspaper that this could be due to the fact that whenever there is a safety inspection or visit “they give you a heads up so you can get ready.”
He said this is done in various ways, such as email, word of mouth or by notification on the online sally port system, which is regularly used by staff to check-in on myriad items, such as medical issues, overtime, shift coverage, work needed, etc.
Because of the “heads up from superiors,” he says there is no chance to “really catch anyone off guard.”
When asked whether advance notice was given to staff prior to the visit by the infection prevention team on Aug. 6, Oregon DOC officials say a notification was given but not with specifics.
“SRCI staff were not notified (by word of mouth or otherwise) about the August 6 assessment by the Infection Prevention Team,” reads an emailed response on Thursday. “A general notice of an upcoming visit was given to staff, but date and time were not included.”
What happens to officers, inmates when they don’t wear masks?
Previously, SRCI said that they follow their process of “progressive discipline in order to give our employees an opportunity to change behavior,” and that while no employees had been fired for non-compliance, such an action could lead to a person’s dismissal.
Staff found out of compliance have been verbally counseled “resulting in immediate and cooperative compliance,” according to Oregon DOC officials, which also stated a handful of employees were in an investigative process.
In an update on Thursday, Oregon DOC officials said those investigations “could lead to discipline,” but that they were awaiting further information from human resources.
It didn’t sit well with the anonymous staffer that inmates caught without masks are being punished by not being able to go to/complete their work assignments for the day, thereby being unpaid, but a correctional officer doing the exact same thing was “not really” being punished.
In Thursday’s emailed response, Oregon DOC officials said as of Aug. 12, all inmates “are required to have a face covering with them any time they leave their cell or bunk area.”
This also includes when interacting with staff or others when 6 feet cannot be maintained. Those inmates “who refuse to wear a face covering are given a daily fail if at a work site, or it is handled through progressive discipline.”
“At work sites, anyone within 6 feet of others refusing to wear a face covering after being reminded, is issued a daily fail,” reads the information.
“Outside work crews that allow for 6 feet of social distancing can remove their mask. Refusal to wear a mask while on an outside crew will not result in the crew being canceled; however, the adult in custody refusing will be issued a daily fail.”
Voicing concerns for inmates
In addition to the anonymous employee, there have been numerous loved ones of inmates reaching out to the newspaper to express their concerns about COVID-19 at Snake River Correctional Institution.
A mother of one inmate, who also wished to remain anonymous citing fear of retaliation against her son, said she has been on edge since first finding out about SRCI being a hot spot for COVID-19. And that concern grew after multiple talks with her son who described what it was like there, including guards not wearing masks.
She wishes to remind people that there are a lot of people who are incarcerated who deserve a second chance, and a lot of people who don’t.
“The story of my son is what it is. It is not going to change what happened,” she said. “It’s bad enough to be a parent and worry somebody is going to murder your child, but then to put COVID on top of it, it’s just really very stressful.”
She said she didn’t feel like enough has been done to protect the inmates.
“My son got eight years — he didn’t get a life sentence,” she said. “I feel like with the way they are going about with COVID, I feel like it could be a life sentence.”
She mentioned hearing stories about young adults in their 20s, who had gotten the virus and died.
“And they’ve been on the outside where they can get good medical care.”
The anonymous staffer pointed that out, as well.
“My goal is it is safer for people there,” he said, adding that when it comes to health care, those incarcerated “don’t get better treatment” than those walking free.
He says he turned to the newspaper in hopes it could somehow shine a light on what is happening there and cause change, as he felt he was disregarded numerous times after raising his concerns.
“My whole thing is for people to take this real,” he said. “COVID doesn’t take a break because you are on a break or in a break room. It’s there.”