ONTARIO — The coronavirus continues to spread through the Snake River Correctional Institution, with the number of inmates infected almost doubling in the past 30 days.
The prison remains a major source of COVID-19 cases in Malheur County and has one of the highest infection rates among Oregon’s 14 prisons.
As of Sept. 24, the Oregon Department of Corrections reported a total of 394 inmate cases since the first one was detected in the Ontario prison in July. Four inmates have died. The department also reported a total of 139 employees at the prison have tested positive.
“We don’t have a specific reason to link the cases from this last month,” said Amber Campbell, Snake River spokeswoman.
Among Oregon prisons, Snake River’s COVID-19 case rate is high.
Six prisons have reported no cases, and the average inmate infection rate across all prisons is 4%. Snake River’s infection rate among its 2,700 inmates is 14%, second only to Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton, where 18% of inmates have been infected.
The outbreak adds to Malheur County’s designation as the county with the highest infection rate in the state. Although the prison cases won’t be counted in any decision to open schools, the outbreak counts in the county’s total case load. As of Friday, Sept. 25, the county reported 1,613 cases dating back to March.
An Aug. 6 assessment by the Department of Corrections and obtained by the Malheur Enterprise through a public records request found that the majority of employees and inmates at Snake River wore face coverings, and managers at the prison appeared to take COVID-19 seriously.
The agency sent a special inspection team to the prison last month as part of its effort to track the virus in the state prison system.
They found during the August tour that two employees didn’t have a face covering available and one pulled down their face covering to talk to an inmate. One employee’s face covering wasn’t over his nose, and two of the three employees in a prison tower weren’t social distancing or wearing face coverings.
Seven employees assigned to transporting inmates weren’t wearing masks while eating together in an area too small for social distancing, the auditors found.
“The staff sometimes wear masks, but not all the time,” said SRCI inmate Patrick Kirk.
The auditors found that employees coming through a back entrance at the minimum facility weren’t screened. Since then, the prison has directed employees to get a complete screening before reporting to their work stations.
The assessment also noted the difficulty of preventing COVID-19 cases in a 24-hour correctional facility where the employees live in counties which have such high COVID-19 case rates.
“Even if these controls are implemented as well as can be reasonably expected, positive cases are still likely to occur as long as COVID-19 is prevalent in the outside community,” said the assessment.
While the assessment shows that the majority of employees and inmates wear masks, the masks provided to inmates are not up to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards.
The masks provided to the inmates at Snake River are single-layer polyester and cotton masks, according to Zachary Erdman, DOC operations and policy manager.
The CDC’s guidance directs people to wear masks with two or more layers to stop the spread of COVID-19, and an April 3 newsletter from Santiam Correctional Institution in Salem said “it is important to note that these masks will NOT take the place of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) for those with, or in close contact with, COVID-19.”
Agency officials said it would not have been appropriate to provide PPE to inmates.
“Due to continuing nationwide shortage of PPE, it would not be irresponsible for DOC to provide items like N95 masks and face shields to the general adult in custody population, when CDC requirements have shown that a washable, breathable fabric mask is safe and effective for the majority of people,” wrote Erdman.
Inmates have to wear masks only when within 6 feet of another person, and can be sent away from their assignment and have their daily wage docked if they neglect to wear them at a work site.
Two May declarations from inmates in a lawsuit against the DOC said that inmates weren’t wearing masks.
“They tell us we should be wearing them, but they only enforce it if we go to medical,” said former SRCI inmate Brandon Borba.
DOC employees only have to wear masks if they are within 6 feet of someone, unless they are working in food, health services or the Oregon Corrections Enterprises, according to a July 13 email from Heidi Steward, DOC deputy director, to DOC staff.
“It is becoming difficult to stand our ground on our current directive, as not all of us are following it. If we do not pull together and wear our face coverings when we can’t maintain six feet of social distancing, we may be mandated to wear masks at all times,” the email reads.
Washington state, in comparison, began requiring all staff to wear N95 masks at all times in May. Washington state has seen 454 COVID-19 cases and two deaths across their 17,845 inmates, and 167 cases among employees.
Declarations from inmates submitted as part of the lawsuit against the state May 12 said that prison employees weren’t wearing masks either.
“(Correctional officers) aren’t wearing masks and are regularly right up in our faces. They don’t care about social distancing at all,” said SRCI inmate Aaron Delicino.