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Oregon Department of Corrections

SRCI 'working to compile a report' regarding COVID-19 efforts per judge's order

Judge orders proof of how the masking policy is being enforced

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SRCI 'working to compile a report' regarding COVID-19 efforts per judge's order

The main entrance to Snake River Correctional Institution on Stanton Boulevard in Ontario is pictured in August of 2020.

ONTARIO

State officials can’t comment on what, if any, steps have been taking at Snake River Correctional Facility following a judge’s opinion and order regarding reducing “unnecessary risks to medically vulnerable” inmates at the facility as it relates to COVID-19. However, that information should be known by the end of the month.

“We cannot comment on pending litigation. However, the Oregon Department of Corrections is working to compile a report on the extensive efforts at Snake River Correctional Institution regarding COVID-19,” wrote Jennifer Black, communications manager for Oregon Department of Corrections in an email on Friday afternoon. “That report will be presented to the court at the end of April and we will share it with the public at that time.”

The judge’s order was a result of petitions for writ of habeas corpus relief heard on the matter of two inmates who both claim SRCI violated the Eighth Amendment due to improper jail conditions while they had underlying health conditions.

The judge ordered immediate care for both of them, said the inmates could not be retaliated against them for reporting violations of mask requirements, and subsequently ordered officials at SRCI to produce documentation on how the masking policy is being enforced at SRCI, “including proof of specific enforcement.” Additionally, she urged officials to consider a plan to engage in mass COVID-19 testing at SRCI, “particularly rapid testing of staff prior to entry.”

The cases were heard in February in the Malheur County Circuit Court, and by Multnomah Circuit Court Judge Amy M. Baggio, who issued her opinions and orders on March 24.

Mark Lawson’s petition

Inmate Mark Lawson’s petition against Brad Cain, superintendent of SRCI was filed on June 4. Lawson’s earliest release date is in October of 2015. The petition states that as the facility did not follow the state’s precautions to prevent the spread of COVID, he and other inmates were “in imminent danger of acute illness, deprivation of essential medical care and death,” and that inmates were not adequately separated from staff or each other, and lacked PPE, including adequate soap, sanitizer and masks.

Additionally it states that Lawson was diagnosed with COPD, a lung disease, 10 years ago.

Despite requesting protection, Lawson’s petition states that he was “unavoidably and dangerously close proximity” to others prisoners and staff who may have the virus, including staff who enter and leave the facility and may be exposed.

Additionally, the petition stated that he heard Oregon DOC was transferring infected inmates from other facilities to SRCI.

In Lawson’s petition, Baggio ordered SRCI provide him “an urgent consultation with a pulmonologist for formal spirometry and optimization of Plaintiff’s COPD therapy,” and that SRCI consider the findings and come back to the court for a status check within 30 days to see that requirements have been met.

She stated that SRCI officials must “take a more proactive approach” when it comes to preventative measures and the safety of the vaccines.

The opinion stated that the per testimony “proper mask wearing among staff and AICs at SRCI continues to be a problem,” and that inmates are subject to discipline for noncompliance the “enforcement was inconsistent.”

She stated that according to testimony, only one staff member had progressed in discipline for mask violations in November of 2020. It is noteworthy that at that time, the newspaper had requested information on any disciplinary action resulting from not wearing masks since August. This is because 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.

In November, officials told the newspaper that there had been 41 violations for not wearing masks, with five staff members having more than one occurrence, and having been counseled more than once. The official also told the newspaper that some employees were sent home without pay.

The newspaper was seeking information regarding disciplinary action since August of 2020. This was a result of Oregon DOC officials on Aug. 7 disclosing to the Argus Observer that they had reviewed video of correctional officers standing closer than 6-feet to inmates without wearing face coverings.

In their testimony, ODOC Assistant Superintendent Jason Bell and Dr. Garth Gulick, who has practiced medicine for 17 years at SRCI testified.

Bell said most SRCI staff live in Idaho where masks are not required, and Gulick said he was “at war with COVID-19 misinformation in SRCI,” describing staff as “having doubts about he virus and vaccine” and saying “misinformation is totally ingrained” with many believing that “masking is stupid and that the virus is harmless.”

Bell indicated that while their is a grievance process for inmates, they fear retaliation, adding that there is potential for that.

It was additionally noted that Bell recently began unannounced assessments by staff and inmates and as recently as Feb. 10, no was the answer to whether staff, contractors or inmates were wearing face coverings while inside or properly. No was also the answer regarding whether masks and face coverings were available to everyone upon request. It was also noted that staff and inmates pull down masks to talk or do not wear them properly.

Donald Skelton’s petition

A little more than a month later on July 16, inmate Donald Skelton’s petition was filed against Cain and SRCI. His earliest release date is February of 2026. In his petition, Skelton also stated that conditions were inadequate, including tight quarters, inadequate PPE, no quarantining of staff or prisoners to or from facility and more.

Additionally, Skelton has several medical conditions, which he receives prescriptions for, including respiratory issues, high blood pressure, depression and panic attacks.

In the case of Skelton, the newspaper was able to obtain many of the exhibits which were included during the hearing on Feb. 24.

These included medical records as well as SRCI response to the plaintiff’s first set of requests for admissions. Many of the documents were redacted.

As the newspaper did in 2020 upon finding out correctional officers were not wearing masks, Skelton’s lawyer this year requested video footage of correctional officers, providing specific date and times to the person he was emailing at the Department of Justice.

One of those times, it alleges that two correctional officers had made threats that they were going to get COVID “and come into the facility and make the prisoners sick and kill them.”

On March 4, Lawyer W. Edward Neusteter also said word was that the physical plant had received hand sanitizing stations, but they had not been installed and that prisoners still had not been provided a disinfectant cleaner.

Baggio’s opinion on the matter of Skelton’s petition, was to immediately implement recommendations for adequate medical care regarding breathing problems and hypertension and related heart issues, which will be part of the update to the court.

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