Death of mentally ill inmate called preventable

The Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.

SALEM — The Oregon Department of Corrections late on Thursday said it had identified an estimated 3,244 inmates — about 22% of the state prison population — who fall into one of seven categories that the governor is considering for possible early release amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Gov. Kate Brown this week asked prison, parole and probation officials to come up with the estimates and report their findings by Monday.

The state divided medically vulnerable inmates into two tiers based on the severity of their conditions. The categories and estimates:

• Inmates who can be released to an “approved residence” (293)

• All inmates, regardless of their conviction, who are within eight weeks of release (590)

• Non-Measure 11 medically vulnerable inmates, tier one (35)

• Non-Measure 11 medically vulnerable inmates, tier two (115)

• Non-Measure 11 inmates over age 60 (159)

• Non-Measure 11 inmates who have served half of their sentence and are within six months of release (1,079)

• Non-Measure 11 inmates who have served half of their sentence and who are within six to 12 months of release (973)

Late Thursday, a spokeswoman for the governor said Brown is “focused on gathering detailed information at this point.”

“We anticipate ongoing conversations and review of the data that (the Department of Corrections) provides before any decisions are made,” said Liz Merah, a spokeswoman for Brown. She said the governor does not have a timeline for making a decision.

State and county corrections and probation officials began meeting Wednesday to discuss the state’s estimates and how local communities would handle early release of prisoners. Those meetings are set to wrap up Friday.

Hood River County Sheriff Matt English, who sits on one of the committees, summarized the discussions for fellow sheriffs in a memo obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive. English said “from the consensus of those on the conference call, this is neither a popular, nor a supported direction to move.”

In his memo, English said counties lack resources to deal with a large influx of people released from prison.

“I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the overarching consensus of sheriffs would be that zero early releases is the desired outcome,” English wrote to Oregon sheriffs.

Brown has faced rising pressure from prominent advocacy organizations to address the COVID-19 threat to inmates and corrections staff.

Social distancing poses a challenge in prisons and jails, where people live in close quarters and where, studies show, the population in general tends to be sicker. Oregon is also home to an aging prison population — it houses among the highest percentages of prisoners ages 55 and older in the country, according to a 2018 study by Pew Charitable Trusts.

So far, a dozen staff members and inmates in the state prison system have confirmed cases of the virus: four workers at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, three staff members and four inmates at the Santiam Correctional Institution Salem and one inmate at the Shutter Creek Correctional Institution in North Bend.

This week, Brown, corrections chief Colette Peters and other top prison officials were named in a class action lawsuit over the alleged failure to protect inmates from the pandemic. The federal suit doesn’t seek money, but asks prison administrators to provide adequate medical care, access to cleaning supplies and testing for those who may have been exposed.

The plaintiffs also want a judge to order prisons to allow 6 feet between prisoners and to release inmates if prisons are too full to comply with social distancing guidelines.

Prison administrators have opened medical wards to triage inmates with symptoms of respiratory illness and said they would ramp up coronavirus testing as tests become more available.

Administrators said they have identified the system’s most medically vulnerable inmates and placed them in single cells when possible.

A “hygiene committee” also is reaching out to “each and every unit” to provide basic information on how people can protect themselves from the disease. Routine medical visits to prison health clinics are on hold so the agency can conserve personal protective equipment and practice social distancing.

The federal government is taking steps to limit the spread of the virus in the Bureau of Prisons. This month, U.S. Attorney General William Barr told federal prison officials to expand early release at prisons where confirmed cases are on the rise.

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