More than a month has passed since officials at Oregon Department of Corrections told The Argus Observer that there were “a handful of correctional officers being investigated” at SRCI for being out of compliance for COVID-19 social distancing mandates for face coverings, and there is still no outcome on those investigations.
Amber Campbell, public information officer at Snake River Correctional Institution confirmed this in an email on Friday afternoon.
“At this time, there have been no outcomes on these investigations,” she wrote in an email.
As of the most recent numbers available on Wednesday, 142 staff members and 403 inmates have tested positive for the virus since the first positive staff test on June 23. Records show that there were five employees who contracted the virus near the end of June, with the first positive case among inmates recorded on July 1.
On Aug. 7, in its denial of a public records request, Oregon DOC officials stated that in their own review of requested video footage, there was footage depicting “some instances in which correctional staff who were not able to maintain six feet of physical distancing [were] not wearing face masks as required by the Department’s policy.”
The Argus Observer sent a records request to the Department of Corrections on Sept. 10 asking for records of disciplinary action that has happened at SRCI regarding staff noncompliance for wearing masks or other social distancing measures.
This was met with a response on Sept. 16 from Michelle Whitney Dodson, records officer for Oregon Department of Corrections.
“The department is currently conducting internal investigations regarding staff noncompliance with direction given to wear masks when physical distancing is not possible,” reads the response. “Because internal investigations are in process the department does not have responsive records in response to your request for copies of disciplinary action.”
Upon further inquiry regarding the investigative process, Jennifer Black, communications manager for Oregon DOC responded.
“It is our goal to make all investigations as brief as possible, given the facts and circumstances. A short investigation is beneficial for the employee and the agency,” she wrote. “However we must follow due process that is outlined in our union contracts and unfortunately, unforeseen circumstances can slow down investigations. An example is when a key witness, that must be interviewed, goes on vacation.”
Oregon DOC officials previously told the Argus that no employees had been fired for non-compliance, but that such an action could lead to a person’s dismissal. They also said that most staff found out of compliance were verbally counseled “resulting in immediate and cooperative compliance.”
In an effort to flatten the curve at SRCI, contact tracing is being done internally.
Campbell told the Argus recently that there is “no rhythm, no perfect system” for finding every case, but that tracking will help the timeline. There is also a daily tracking tool that shows how many cases per day are popping up at the facility, breaking down those positives into employee and inmate numbers.
“It just helps give a nice picture, because we know exactly what numbers are coming in and when,” she said.
Sarah Poe, director of Malheur County Health Department visited SRCI on Sept. 14.
“They are in a really difficult situation — like one of the most vulnerable settings for COVID in the state,” she said of the facility.
She said the prison has “excellent protocols it is following with Oregon DOC. However, she added that the significant amount of asymptomatic spread throughout the community complicates things, as people could honestly not know they have an infections.
“That’s why keeping social distance and wearing masks is really important,” she said.
Inmates who reached out to the Argus last week, by letter and by phone, allege that “it has been suggested that people who discuss DOC issues threaten the safety and security and there are ways to deal with troublemakers.” One of them alleged that inmates who have been saying they have symptoms are getting put into solitary confinement, where they are stripped of privileges, such as personal belongings.
In response to these allegations, Campbell replied that inmates are only being put into medical isolation when necessary (as of Wednesday, there were 86 listed in medical isolation status).
“In this context isolation does NOT refer to punitive isolation for behavioral infractions within the custodial setting,” she said, adding that if a housing move were necessary, inmates “are allowed to bring with them personal property such as books.”