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Two die, nearly 400 inmates fall ill after COVID-19 outbreak at Oregon jail

UMATILLA – Brandon Baker was already experiencing symptoms when staff at the Two Rivers Correctional Institution carried a sick prisoner down two cells.

Another prisoner, four cells away, said he saw the same prisoner lying on his bed sick for nearly two weeks and not being given much care.

“It looked like death,” said the prisoner, who asked for anonymity for fear of revenge. I walked past him and said, “Get better, brother,”

; and he didn’t even move. Like a coma in his bed. “

The ill prisoner, who was between 50 and 60 years old and was serving his sentence in TRCI, reportedly died on Saturday, January 2, after positive tests for COVID-19, according to a press release that did not identify him by name. . He is one of two inmates who died recently as the institution suffered the largest increase in COVID-19 cases among Oregon prisons, with 235 active cases as of Wednesday, Jan. 6, according to the Oregon Enforcement Department.

“They’re not really doing anything,” Baker, who turned out to be positive for COVID-19 around the first year, told prison staff. “Right now, someone may be dying in their cage and they won’t know anything about it because they are locked in their cell, unattended and nothing. They are just locked in their cell. ”

Baker is one of 393 prisoners at TRCI who are said to be positive for COVID-19 as of December 10, 2020, according to the Corrections Department. Since the beginning of December 2020, 50 TRCI employees have also achieved positive results.

Interviews with four inmates, eight people with relatives in prison and two lawyers with more than 20 clients at TRCI revealed the conditions facing the adults in custody as the prison was shaken by the jump in the case. They described in Eastern Oregon’s inconstant masks among prison staff, failures in both maintaining social distance and separating quarantine and non-quarantine prisoners, scarce food supplies and expired food, and the environment in which inmates and prison staff have been at risk of infection since a power outage left the east side of the institution largely in the dark on 16 December 2020.

Authorities say power was restored on December 24, 2020. But since then, the infection has grown rapidly, with 281 additional prisoners and 40 staff members reportedly positive.

“Just because they’re a prisoner doesn’t mean they don’t have people who love them,” said Erika Solander, whose husband, a TRCI prisoner, was taken to hospital on Thursday (January 7th), four days after a positive test in the outbreak.

Jolander’s husband, who she said should have been released from prison after 27 days, has asthma, diabetes and has undergone chemotherapy for cancer. He worries that he will fail.

“He called me (Wednesday, January 6) and he could barely speak,” she said, crying. “And he says, ‘Tell my kids I love them. I may not get home. And the rumor that breaks my heart. “

Baker and the anonymous prisoner said that since the virus began spreading through the prison in mid-December, infecting hundreds and forcing their unit to be quarantined, prison officials have conducted only brief daily checks for temperature and symptoms.

They were released from their cells once a day for a short phone call, which prisoner Troy Marin said was due to a shortage of staff caused by the outbreak.

In an email to the EO, the correction staff did not answer many questions about the source’s claims for minimal medical care, but said: “DOC staff make decisions based on medical and operational experience,” and the added staff is limited by ” institution design ”and the number of hospital beds for patients with COVID-19 throughout the country.

Officials said prisoners who needed medical care beyond what was available at the prison were being transferred to hospitals. Officers did not answer questions about the circumstances surrounding the death of a sick prisoner in a cell near Baker.

Wave in the country

The increase in TRCI comes as the state prison system experiences a significant jump in cases, with 545 active adult cases pending as of January 6, according to the ODOC. Only three of the country’s 15 prisons have no ongoing active cases.

A total of 2,690 adults in custody and 679 officers tested positive in Oregon, and 26 inmates infected with COVID-19 died, according to the ODOC.

“It seems that the (correctional department) is really reactive,” said Tara Herivel, a Portland-based lawyer with more than 20 clients at TRCI. “They are waiting until the problem takes over, no matter how predictable or not. Then, when the pressure is strong enough, they take action, whether they are adequate or not. They wait in a reactive position and this is fatal in these circumstances. “

Some TRCI inmates say they believe the infection comes from prison jobs, such as the laundry room or the kitchen, where they say quarantine inmates mix with non-quarantine inmates.

“Don’t get me wrong, I like my job, I love working,” said Troy Marin, a TRCI prisoner who works in the laundry. “But I don’t want my life in danger either.”

Prisoners say that if they refuse to go to work, they will face retaliation by being placed in the “hole” – a separate unit where prisoners are sent when they misbehave.

ODOC officials said: “It is impossible to say definitively what may have caused or exacerbated the TRCI outbreak.” They said health and safety measures such as sanitation, masking and social distancing were carried out according to their “most good opportunities. “

In response to a list of questions from the EO’s editorial staff, officials said, “ODOC cannot comment on specific allegations as they are the subject of pending litigation in several cases.”

However, prison officials said that earlier this week, a two-day trial before the Umatila District Court on such allegations led a judge to rule that the state “was not intentionally indifferent to the terms of COVID-19 at TRCI and that on the contrary, ODOC has invested significant resources and energy in combating and preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the institution. “

When it started

On December 10, after two prison officials tested positive a week earlier, correctional officers transferred 10 COVID-19-positive prisoners from the Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras to two rivers in medical isolation, according to Oregon Public Radio for the first time. . At the time of the transfer, Deer Ridge had more than 130 adults in custody with active cases.

Between 10 December and 18 December 2020, 47 additional prisoners and six TRCI staff members were positive.

Herivel said there is a department for correctional policies against the transfer of prisoners inside and outside Level 4 prisons – the highest level of quarantine based on cases in a separate prison. She said she believed the transfers took place when there was room for medical treatment in prisons and the institution was overcome by the spread of the disease, “and it seems to have happened at TRCI,” she said.

“If you transfer people from a Level 4 prison to another prison and those people are not tested, but they turn out to be positive, you open up a whole bunch of people to pain, suffering, and possibly death,” Herivel said.

In the email, officials said they were following the transfer protocol.

On December 16, a power outage caused by a short circuit and an explosion of two wires in an underground canal after 20 years of degradation left an area where more than 600 prisoners live in the dark, according to officials and sources. A few days later, the prisoners were given small, battery-powered lights to illuminate their cells just as an infection was growing in the prison.

For more than a week, prisoners were released from their cells for about an hour a day to use the telephone and take a shower. Besides – the darkness.

“It’s weird because you lose track of what’s going on,” said Frank Rouff, a prisoner who added that he thought it was causing problems and was getting into the “hole” just to be in a light cage. “You can’t read or you can’t do anything. You’re just lying there. Our cells are not big enough for two people to get up and move at the same time. “

Roof, 64, a type 2 diabetic, said prisoners around him were eating frozen, rancid meat, and their diet consisted mostly of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cookies and some fruit. Finally, a few days after the break, they began receiving warm food in the form of a 3-ounce spoonful of oatmeal, he said. Rouff said his diet and inability to leave the cell left his blood sugar “out of control.”

Roof added that conditions during the power outage caused an increase in voltage. Officials said fights were starting and two employees were attacked because of anger caused by a power outage, Rouff said in December.

Megan Bishop, a Oregon lawyer who works in Washington, D.C., in downtown Rainey and has a client at TRCI, said she believes the power outage has exacerbated the COVID-19 outbreak. Her client, Craig Dawson, has filed a lawsuit against former TRCI supervisor Tyler Bluet, alleging that the prison does not follow the instructions of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Blewett resigned as head of the prison on December 15, 2020, after serving for one year. The prison refused to provide any information as to why Blevet resigned.

“There’s no reason to behave like that.”

Bishop said her client had told her that the movement of prisoners to showers and telephones was disorganized and crowded, which facilitated the spread of the virus. And when Dawson sent her an email about correctional personnel not wearing personal protective equipment during a cell search, he was put in the “hole,” she said.

Bishop said Dawson was medically vulnerable to COVID-19 due to multiple heart attacks, lung damage from pneumonia and high blood pressure. She said he told her he had received food poisoning from eating expired food during the outbreak.

“What happens in state prisons is a result of the election,” she said. “The prison system has chosen not to apply the CDC guidelines. They chose not to go down hard (repair staff) because they do not wear masks. They chose not to apply mass tests. “

Bishop said the way prisons around Oregon deal with the outbreak could have lasting consequences.

“By not treating people who are imprisoned with dignity, by feeding them expired food, by locking them in 23 hours a day, by retaliating because they see injustice in the prison walls, we are setting them up for failure once they “will be released,” she said. “And what we’re seeing with (Oregon prisons) because of COVID is that people are now seeing the reality of what imprisonment is. This has been going on for decades. “

Sources in almost every interview in Eastern Oregon say they blame prison staff for bringing the virus into TRCI, stressing the fact that it is impossible for prisoners to come out and bring in the virus.

Prison officials said that “all people entering the DOC are tested for COVID-19,” adding that staff measured staff temperatures and asked about coronavirus-related symptoms.

“The DOC has put the hearths of the institutions under control in other prisons and we will do it again thanks to the hard work and diligence of the staff and the AIC,” the staff said.

Friends and families of prisoners are skeptical, discouraged and call on the prison to apply stricter guidelines to keep their loved ones safe.

“I’m angry. I’m worried. I’m angry,” said Cheryl Baker, Brandon Baker’s mother, who said she hadn’t seen her son in person for nearly a year because of the virus. “There’s no reason for them to behave like that. They’re not animals.” “One of them is my son.”

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