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Oregon inmates sue Department of Corrections over COVID response

The civil rights lawsuit alleges the DOC has not taken the necessary steps to slow the spread of the virus inside its 14 institutions.

PORTLAND, Ore — A group of inmates with underlying medical conditions concerned about contracting COVID-19 filed a lawsuit Monday against Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and the leaders at the Department of Corrections, arguing the agency provided willful and deliberately indifferent medical care to those in custody.

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.

Inmates are at greater risk for contracting the disease because it’s difficult to create enough social distance in prisons, jails and detention centers necessary to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. In parts of the country, inmates in some facilities have died.

Among other things, the suit asks a judge to mandate a social distance of six feet or more between inmates in all of the DOC’s facilities. If that can’t be accomplished, the lawsuits ask 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.

“While [the Oregon Department of Corrections] has adopted some policies in response to COVID-19, it has largely neglected critical measures to halt the spread of the virus,” the lawsuit states. “A successful response to this pandemic cannot be accomplished with half-measures that undermine positive changes.”

The lawsuit claims the agency has “willfully and wantonly ignored” the threat caused by the virus.

Last week, DOC Director Collette Peters told OPB in an interview her agency was doing everything they can to keep people safe but also 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. “We’re worried about those in the institution and the employees.”

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.

Last month, advocates in Washington also filed a petition with the state’s supreme court to get medically vulnerable inmates released from prisons.

This article was originally published by OPB, one of more than a dozen news organizations throughout the state sharing their coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak to help inform Oregonians about this evolving health issue.

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