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Class action lawsuit calls for immediate vaccination of all Oregon inmates

More than 3,200 inmates have contracted the coronavirus.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Not a day goes by that Nellie Love does not think about her fiance, who is locked up in Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla.

"Is he sick, he is worried," said Love. "I'm worried. It's scary."

It is scary because 38 inmates across Oregon's prison system have died after testing positive for COVID-19. More than 3,200 adults in custody have been sickened by the virus. That means one in four people incarcerated in Oregon has contracted COVID.

"That's a staggering statistic," said Juan Chavez.

Chavez is an attorney with Oregon Justice Resource Center (OJRC), a non-profit that addresses issues involving mass incarceration. OJRC filed a class action lawsuit against Governor Kate Brown and leaders at the Oregon Department of Corrections. The lawsuit calls for the immediate vaccination of all inmates.

"We have an obligation to protect them now," said Chavez. "That's the bargain we've decided. If you don't want to incarcerate people don't incarcerate people but now that we have we need to protect them."

According to Chavez, and confirmed by the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC), more than 1,300 inmates, who are older and more vulnerable, have already been vaccinated. Chavez says that is not good enough. He says the other 90% of the prison population needs the vaccine now. Chavez worries that more inmates will die.

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Since the start of the pandemic 38 inmates have died after testing positive for COVID.

"While we on the outside have the opportunity to stay away from each other and stay home people on the inside don't and don't have the opportunity to protect themselves," Chavez said.

He said no matter what safety measures ODOC puts in place in prisons, social distancing is next to impossible.

"We've heard from multiple folks that even if you're told to stay in your bunk, your unit is on lockdown, you're sitting next to people who have tested positive for the disease," said Chavez.

Love has heard similar stories from her fiancé. She cannot help but worry that he will get sick next, or even worse die if the situation does not improve.

"Maybe pray they can do something about this," she said. "It is scary for those of us who have loved ones behind bars."

KGW reached out to Gov. Brown's office for comment on the lawsuit. A spokesperson says they cannot comment on pending litigation. However, the spokesperson says the inmates who have not yet been vaccinated will be included in phase 1b of the vaccine rollout. In all likelihood that is still months away.