(Update: Adding Dept. of Corrections statement)
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A group of inmates concerned about contracting COVID-19 filed a federal lawsuit Monday against Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and the leaders at the state Department of Corrections.
The civil rights lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court by the Oregon Justice Resource Center on behalf of the inmates, alleges the DOC has not taken the necessary steps to slow the spread of the virus inside its 14 institutions where more than 14,000 inmates live, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.
The suit asks a judge to mandate a social distance of 6 feet or more between inmates in all of the DOC’s facilities. If that can’t be accomplished, the lawsuit asks that a three-judge panel review cases and reduce the number of prisoners in DOC’s facilities so it is possible.
So far in Oregon, three inmates at the Santiam Correctional Institution in Salem have tested positive for the virus, the agency said Monday. A total of five DOC staff members have also tested positive. Two work at the Santiam prison and three work at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.
The inmates named in the lawsuit have asthma and other respiratory ailments, some are HIV positive, others are elderly.
Last week, DOC Director Collette Peters told OPB in an interview her agency was doing everything they can to keep people safe but acknowledged the challenges of social distancing in a prison.
“We have been working around the clock to prepare ourselves for stopping the spread of COVID-19 in our institutions,” Peters said.
The lawsuit acknowledges DOC has taken some measures but argues they’re not enough. The lawsuit says older adults and those with underlying medical issues face serious illness or death.
While the Department of Corrections said it does not comment on pending litigation. it did share this statement Tuesday from DOC Director Colette S. Peters:
“I would like to expand on our efforts to keep our employees and our adults in custody (AICs) safe during this global pandemic. We are doing everything in our power to maintain social distancing inside our institutions, our medical personnel have identified those who are most vulnerable and are thoughtfully housing them and monitoring them closely, and we are providing quality healthcare to those who are ill.
"Our mission has never been easy, and it is even more complicated in the midst of a global pandemic. We do not simply operate prisons, we operate a health care system inside our prison system. Our efforts inside our prison walls keep sick AICs out of community hospitals using valuable resources.
"I am grateful to our front-line employees – correctional officers, health services staff, food service employees – who are coming to work every day to ensure the AICs are held accountable for their actions and to create better neighbors when they are released. Like our public safety partners and health care professionals in the community, our employees are continuing essential functions while knowingly working with individuals who they know have been exposed to and are sick with COVID-19. I have never been more proud of our employees.”