On Oct. 19, The Argus Observer obtained a copy of a July 13 letter from Oregon Department of Corrections’ Deputy Director Heidi Steward to DOC staff regarding discipline of staff for non-compliance of face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Repeatedly being reminded of not wearing a mask was to lead in staff being sent home without pay, the letter stated, as to “mitigate our risk of COVID-19, being mandated to wear face coverings at all times, and further litigation.” Steward’s letter also states that Oregon DOC is facing legal action for not following its own face covering protocols.
On Oct. 13, Betty Bernt, Oregon DOC communications manager, told the Argus that 36 staff members at Snake River Correctional Institution had one violation each, adding that “five staff had more than once each for a total of 41 occurrences.” All of those had resulted in verbal warnings, according to Bernt, with further action being evaluated on one.
After obtaining Steward’s letter, the Argus reached back out to officials to ask why staff with multiple violations at SRCI only resulted in verbal warnings, rather than being sent home for the day without pay per Steward’s letter.
A reply on Oct. 20, which backtracked Bernt’s original statement to the newspaper, came from Jennifer Black, communication manager, for Oregon DOC.
In that reply, Black sought to clarify what Bernt had said and added information not previously stated. It is noteworthy that in the week leading up to Black’s response to the newspaper’s inquiry, she never corrected the information provided by Bernt, though she was cc’d in all the communication.
“We have 36 employees who have been verbally counseled once, for not wearing masks. Five additional staff have been counseled more than once. This totals 41 occurrences. I want to make it clear that five employees have not had 41 violations,” she wrote.
To this she added that some employees were sent home without pay.
“The two employees involved in investigations, were sent home from the institution without pay because when verbally reminded, they refused to comply,” Black wrote. “Thankfully, in all of the other instances, there was no need to send employees home because they immediately complied and put on their face coverings.”
Math doesn’t add up
After receiving Black’s reply, the newspaper crunched numbers and realized that if 36 employees were counseled once each and “five additional staff” were counseled more than once, that equaled 41 employees. If that were the case, it would mean at least 46 occurrences. So the newspaper reached back out for further clarification.
Bernt responded by email on Oct. 23 that there were not five additional staff. She said of the 36 employees who were verbally counseled, there were five who were “counseled more than once.”
She said that the investigations came after the staff were sent home without pay.
It is noteworthy that the newspaper had requested information on any disciplinary action resulting from not wearing masks since August. This came after Oregon DOC officials on Aug. 7 disclosed to the newspaper that they had reviewed video of correctional officers standing closer than 6-feet to inmates without wearing face coverings.
Causes of death
The Argus Observer has also been working to find out the causes of death for those inmates who died who had tested positive for COVID-19, as some of them had comorbidities. To date, 11 of those inmates between the ages of 50 and 85 at SRCI have died.
Of the 11 inmates who died, only two of them died in Oregon. Both causes of those deaths — on Aug. 17 and Sept. 22 — have been confirmed by the Malheur County Medical Examiner as COVID.
Upon seeking information about the other deaths, the Argus was told by Oregon State Police that the deaths had not actually been reported to them by Oregon DOC.
“Per my conversation with Mr. Fox, it sounds like the Malheur County Medical Examiner’s Offices needs to enter the AIC [inmate] deaths into a database in order for him to make a proper and complete search,” Black previously told the Argus.
However, after contacting Dr. David Brauer, the county’s medical examiner, he said that those other inmates had died in Boise, where they were transferred for medical care. As such, he referred the Argus to the Ada County Coroner.
Tonia Fleming, office manager for that coroner, sent over the causes of death for inmates who died. She said her office was able to confirm these individuals were “incarcerated at Snake River Correctional Institute and were transported to Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, Boise, Idaho, where they died.
Results follow with immediate causes of death and names (some had other significant conditions, which are not listed here).
• Sept. 6: Barry L. Larsen, COVID-19 pneumonia complicating multiple co-morbidities;
• Sept. 25: Richard R. Torres, Jr., COVID pneumonia complicating multiple co-morbidities;
• Sept. 27: Brian C. McCarvill, pending;
• Oct. 3: James Kempf, Acute on chronic congestive heartfailure;
• Oct. 4: Timothy R. McElroy, Epidural abscess of the spine due to right cephalic vein septic thrombophlebitis;
• Oct. 5: Donald Bennett, Adult respiratory distress syndrome due to COVID-19;
• Oct. 6: Gilberto Pedroso, Acute respiratory distress syndrome due to COVID-19 pneumonia;
• Oct. 13: Wayne Denson, COVID-19 pneumonia; and
• Oct. 17: Michael Abeln, COVID-19 pneumonia.
“These cases are open and ongoing at this time and may list the cause of death as pending,” Fleming said.
Oregon DOC typically releases the names of individuals who die while incarcerated at its facilities, however, it has not been doing so for inmates who die who have tested positive with COVID. As such, names of those SRCI inmates who died on Aug. 17 and Sept. 22 are not available.
How we got here
The first positive test related to Snake River Correctional Institution was a staff member on June 23. Records show that there were five employees who contracted the virus near the end of that month, with the first positive case among inmates recorded on July 1.
At SRCI, there have been 459 inmates and 158 staff members who have tested positive for COVID, as of information updated on Oct. 28. There are 870 total staff and 2,908 total inmates at the facility.
SRCI remains in a Tier 4 status, which means the entire facility is on quarantine; the most recent extension of that status is through Nov. 1, according to Amber Campbell, spokeswoman at SRCI. This was based on four positive tests of inmates, she said.
An update on the status as well as inquiries on other questions were unreturned by press time.
“As you can imagine, we have many reporters asking questions and other communications needs. We will put your questions in the queue and respond next week,” wrote Black.