ACLU of Oregon fights for prison safety

MEDFORD, Ore. – An Oregon State Penitentiary inmate died earlier this week after testing positive from coronavirus.

Now, the ACLU of Oregon is asking the state to better protect prisoners during this global crisis. The ACLU of Oregon is calling for action, asking Oregon’s Department of Corrections to release inmates who pose a higher risk for coronavirus. It’s also asking that prisoners who are at the end of their sentence be released.

“Incarceration should not be a death sentence,” said Kelly Simon, is the Interim Legal Director for ACLU of Oregon. “One of the things we’ve been asking for is to reduce the population to a more safe number, that allows people to physically distant inside of Oregon’s institutions.”

The vast majority of Oregon prisons stopped or limited public visitations by mid-March. It was only a few weeks later the state system had its first positive COVID test.

“It’s not necessarily the fault of the Oregon Department of Corrections. But it tells us exactly what advocates and public health experts and corrections officials have been saying the whole time, which is prisons just aren’t set up for this type of event.”

Of the 14 Oregon state prisons, 4 have had coronavirus outbreaks. Two Rivers has had 3 staff members and 1 inmate test positive, Santiam has had 6 staff members and 7 inmates test positive, and Shutter Creek Correctional Institution has had 3 staff members and 25 inmates test positive. Meanwhile, the Oregon State Penitentiary has had 26 staff members and 115 inmates test positive. While the state says more cases are pending, the ACLU of Oregon wants to ensure people in prison are protected.

“They are also incredibly scared about the threat of contracting the COVID-19 virus,” said Simon.

The state says each prison inmate has been offered two face masks and employees one. At three facilities, prisoners are even making them.The state says it is highly encouraging everyone wear masks, but there are only a few areas in each facility where they’re required.

“It is impossible to socially distance in prison,” said Simon.

According to Portland NBC-affiliate KGW, 45 inmates at the Oregon State Penitentiary are in medical isolation. Nearly 2,000 more are in quarantine.

“The State of Oregon has a constitutional obligation to safely house people in their custody,” said Simon.

After the inmate’s death this week, the Oregon Department of Corrections says it’s cleaning many places inside facilities multiple times a day.

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