Health

Women at Oregon Prison Say Their Lives Are at Risk After COVID-19 Patients Are Transferred In

“They’ve signed our death warrant,” an incarcerated woman said. “We’re sitting here waiting to be gassed.”
April 9, 2020, 5:15pm
A photo of the entrance sign at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility
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“I’m vulnerable,” Jessica Rogers-Hall told VICE. On a recent weekday, she was speaking urgently by phone from Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Oregon, a mixed-security prison where she’s expected to be incarcerated until July 2021. “I only have a quarter of a liver. If I get this, I’m dead.”

Rogers-Hall’s concern about getting COVID is not theoretical. The Oregon Department of Corrections recently transferred three men who tested positive for COVID-19 from Santiam Correctional Institution, a men’s minimum-security prison in Salem, to the infirmary at Coffee Creek. They argue that’s the safest move for dealing with a coronavirus outbreak in the prison system.

“The reality is that prisons are not designed for this type of pandemic, especially the minimum institutions,” Mackenzie Kath, a spokesperson for Coffee Creek, told VICE. “Minimum institutions, like SCI, do not have 24/7 medical care or the equipment to treat these COVID-19 AICs [Adults in Custody].”

But Rogers-Hall says that Coffee Creek isn’t taking basic steps to keep incarcerated people safe from COVID-19. She argues that the way the prison is staffed—with incarcerated people doing a significant portion of the day-to-day work of the prison—makes it virtually inevitable that the disease will run rampant in the facility.

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“We run this prison,” she told VICE. “We stock it, unload the trucks, do the dishes, keep the grounds. The laundry room workers are being forced to clean the laundry from these COVID-19 people, without protective gear.”

Those workers sleep in crowded dorm conditions, with medically vulnerable and healthy patients in the same dorms, which Rogers-Hall argues makes it nearly impossible to keep them safe from possible infection, and for that infection not to ravage the facility. She says that she and other medically vulnerable women are still eating and sleeping in close quarters with the general-population inmates.

Rogers-Hall lost a portion of her liver from cancer, and says that she and other medically vulnerable women were previously kept separate from the general population. Not anymore, she said. “They moved us all to a dorm setting. It houses 125 women. They’ve got us in bunk beds not even a foot apart. There’s 60 of us [medically vulnerable women] mixed with regular people running the unit, that are working in the prison, working in the laundry room.”

The safety of incarcerated people in the United States during the coronavirus pandemic has been obviously compromised from the beginning, due to the inherently crowded nature of jails and prisons. Advocates from the Southern Poverty Law Center and numerous other groups began calling weeks ago for people to be released who aren’t believed to be an imminent public safety risk. Since then, COVID-19 has begun spreading in a number of jails and prisons across the country. Michael Tyson, 53, died at Rikers in New York City on Sunday; he had been jailed since February on a parole violation. The ACLU is now suing a federal prison in Louisiana after five people reportedly died of the virus there. Cook County Jail in Chcago is the largest known source of novel coronavirus cases in the United States, according to the New York Times. And Coffee Creek is one of several Oregon correctional facilities who are being sued in a new class action lawsuit filed by the Oregon Justice Resource Center, a civil rights organization. The suit, filed on behalf of seven incarcerated plaintiffs, charges that the DOC has not adequately protected—and is unable to adequately protect—those in its custody.

“The plaintiffs are concerned that COVID-19 poses a serious risk to the health of all who live and work in Oregon’s prisons,” said a press release from the ORJC. “There are many reasons why incarcerated people and those who work with them may be especially vulnerable to outbreaks of infection, including living at close quarters to one another, unsanitary conditions, poor health, and the large numbers of people who cycle through the system. Prisons are not built to adequately withstand a global pandemic; ODOC is not equipped or resourced to handle a public health crisis of this magnitude.”

All seven named plaintiffs in the suit are either of advanced age or have a medical condition that could make them uniquely vulnerable to infection, according to the suit. The lawsuit asks that a judge mandate six feet of distance between incarcerated people, and to release as many people as possible if that’s not currently workable. As the Portland Mercury reported, the suit claims there are five confirmed COVID cases in the prison system—three incarcerated people and two employees—and that the Department of Corrections has not quarantined anyone who’s come into contact with them. CDC-approved sanitizers, it further claims, aren’t being used to clean the facilities.

Kath, the spokesperson for Coffee Creek, confirmed to VICE that people with COVID-19 were transferred from Santiam to the facility, but adds, “We have been following CDC guidelines around social distancing, educating on hygiene practices, communication on proper cleaning, putting quarantine practices in place, preventing visitors/non-essential staff from coming in and implementing the staff screening stations.” She also said that the Department of Corrections “is in daily consultation with our Chief of Medicine and our Epidemiologist. The doctors recommended we house these two AICs in prisons with 24/7 medical care. AOC has reviewed COOP and Pandemic Plans from every prison, and we are improving them to ensure CDC guidelines are followed to the best of our abilities.”

Louis Willis told VICE that her daughter Cinthia, who’s incarcerated at Coffee Creek until 2024, called her in distress this week. “My daughter works in the laundry room,” she said. “They’re trying to give them laundry from the COVID-19 patients.” (The CDC says that laundry from sick people can be washed with that of healthy people, with caveats: dirty laundry shouldn’t be shaken, it should be washed on the hottest possible setting, while wearing gloves, and hands should be cleaned immediately with soap and water when the laundry is done.)

A doctor at the prison assured Willis’ daughter that she just needed to wear gloves and wash her hands, but Willis is still concerned, saying it’s inappropriate to put her daughter and other incarcerated women, rather than professionals, in the position of having to deal with highly infectious items. “That’s ridiculous to me,” she said. “That’s not fair on those girls there at all. They have straight taken my daughter’s life into their hands. That’s not good. Just because they’re in that facility doesn’t mean their lives are not worth living.”

VICE was originally contacted by Rogers-Hall about COVID-19 via a prison-provided email system, Telmate, in early March. She went radio silent for a few weeks, and says that she was disciplined for contacting a reporter.

“They told me I needed to quit talking to you because I’m causing mass hysteria and they put me in seg for seven days,” she said, referring to administrative segregation. “They suspended my phone privileges for 14 days.” (Kath, Coffee Creek’s spokesperson, responds: “Absolutely not true. If one of our AICs is in segregation, it has nothing to do with talking to a reporter.”) Rogers-Hall is also a plaintiff in an ongoing class action sexual lawsuit against the prison, alleging that she and other incarcerated women were groped and sexually assaulted by a former kitchen employee.

“They don’t like me because of the lawsuit I have against them because of the sexual assault,” Rogers-Hall said. “I’ve tried talking to them. They don’t care. We’re not important.”

Her trepidation has reached the point of panic, she told VICE, particularly when she learned from the prison’s doctor that any inmate who tests positive in the Oregon prison system will be sent to Coffee Creek.

“They’ve signed our death warrant,” she said. “We’re sitting here waiting to be gassed.”

On Wednesday, Oregon Live reported that Governor Kate Brown may be considering the release of a number of medically vulnerable incarcerated people, as well as people whose sentences are almost finished.The Oregon District Attorneys Association is opposing the measure, per Oregon Live, claiming it has "significant public safety concerns about convicted criminals, many of whom are violent, being released prior to the completion of their sentences.”

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