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200 Deer Ridge inmates stage protest over smoke, other issues in temporary quarters

Disturbance ends peacefully; inmates, families upset by smoke due to lack of ventilation, no beds, limited meals, medication, phone access

(Update: DOC clarification - inmates walked out, did not break out)

MADRAS, Ore. (KTVZ) – About 200 minimum-security inmates at the Deer Ridge Correctional Institution near Madras, moved to a vacant building to make room for inmates evacuated from a fire-threatened state prison, walked out and refused to go back inside Friday night, complaining the building had mice, mold, no beds and was filling with smoke, making it hard to breathe,  officials and family members said.

The “adults in custody,” as inmates are called, were protesting emergency conditions imposed by the Oregon Department of Corrections in response to state wildfires, the agency said in a news release.

To make room for the 1,000 “multi-custody level” female inmates evacuated from the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, all 950 of the Deer Ridge prison’s male inmates were moved from the medium-security portion of the prison to the former minimum-security facility, which has sat unused since 2016.

Black said the men did not break out of the housing units, but walked out and refused to return.

All but a dozen of the inmates agreed to return to their housing units by 2 a.m. The agency’s crisis negotiation team was deployed, and no force was used to clear the yard, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Jennifer Black said.

The 12 inmates who refused to go back inside were placed in special housing, then transferred to another, undisclosed state prison. No inmates or employees required medical treatment as a result of the disturbance, Black said.

As of Saturday, the moved inmates still didn’t have access to traditional phones, Black said, as they could not be set up with such short notice. Instead, prison staff were working to provide the men with phone calls on their work phones.

The prison was working with its inmate phone provider to install 10 new phones at the facility, while the relocated Coffee Creek inmates have access to phones, video calls and tablets.

The agency said the inmates at Deer Ridge, four miles east of Madras, “demanded changes to emergency operations, citing the poor air quality from wildfires, temporary lack of access to phones and other disruptions caused by the CCF evacuation. DRCI employees will continue to communicate with AICs as the state battles historic wildfires across Oregon.”

An investigation is underway to determine the cause of Friday night’s incident, officials said.

Black said the minimum-security facility had very few bunks, as they had been moved to the former medium-security building, to save money. Mostly, she said, the men are sleeping on mattresses on the ground.

She also said the facility was cleaned before the inmates were moved over. DRCI staff also are supplying cleaning products.

But several family members of Deer Ridge inmates contacted NewsChannel 21 to say the inmates forced their way out of the building because poor ventilation meant it filled up with smoke and they couldn’t breathe, and that along with limited ability to make phone calls, they were not being fed adequately or given access to needed medication.

Jessica W., who asked that her last name not be used, told NewsChannel 21 her brother had called Saturday morning and that they have been in dorm-style living arrangements with over 100 inmates per dorm, sleeping on the floor, on mats.

She said he called her Saturday morning, extremely distraught, and said he "woke up with bugs crawling all over him, completely petrified."

She said he told her he'd only had one meal in 24 hours and that they are being given smaller, cold meals. He had been feeling sick for 10-plus days and had not received medical attention the past few days, with some other inmates "acting out" due to the difficult conditions.

In response to inmate and family concerns, Black told NewsChannel 21 Saturday, “We understand that this is an incredibly difficult time. We are listening to the people we incarcerate, and we are trying very, very hard to make things better.” But she disputed some families’ claims that a “riot” took place. “It was a protest,” she said.

She said inmates and families had been upset about mold, mice and no bunks in the minimum-security facility. “Our Deer Ridge staff have not heard complaints around mold or mice until today. Is it a perfect living condition, over in the minimum-security facility they were in? No.”

“The smoke is just terrible in Madras,” Black said. “We have replaced air filters, are trying the best we can.” She also said she had not yet learned if forced their way out of the building “or it was yard time and they refused to go back in.” (One family member said it was probably “a little bit of both.”)

DOC said the 1,300 Coffee Creek inmates (including nearly 300 men) were evacuated on Thursday as the Riverside and Santiam (Beachie Creek) fires threatened to merge. Earlier in the week, inmates at three state prisons in Salem were evacuated and moved to the Oregon State Penitentiary for similar reasons.

Black said the Santiam Correctional Institution and Mill Creek Correctional Facility inmates were returned to those facilities on Thursday, while inmates from the Oregon State Correctional Institution remained at the state penitentiary.

Article Topic Follows: Jefferson County

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Barney Lerten

Barney is the digital content director for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Barney here.


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