UMATILLA — Brandon Baker was already feeling symptoms when officials at Two Rivers Correctional Institution carried out a sick inmate from two cells down.
Another inmate, four cells away, said he saw the same inmate lying on his bed ill for nearly two weeks, receiving little care.
“He looked like death,” the inmate, who asked for anonymity out of fear of retaliation, said. “I walked by and told him, ‘Get better bro’ and he didn’t even move. Like, comatose on his bed.”
The sick inmate, who was between 50 and 60 years old and was serving his sentence at TRCI, reportedly died on Saturday, Jan. 2, after testing positive for COVID-19, according to a press release that did not identify him by name. He’s one of two inmates who have recently died as the institution endures the largest surge in COVID-19 cases among prisons in Oregon, with 235 active cases as of Wednesday, Jan. 6, according to data from the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC).
“They aren’t actually doing anything,” Baker, who said he tested positive for COVID-19 around the first of the year, said of prison staff. “Right now, somebody could be in their cell dying and they wouldn’t know anything about it because they’re locked in their cell, not being monitored, not being anything. They’re just locked in their cell.”
Baker is one of 393 inmates at TRCI who have reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 since Dec. 10, 2020, according to data from the department of corrections. Since the beginning of December 2020, 50 TRCI staff have also tested positive.
Interviews with four inmates, eight people with loved ones in the prison, and two attorneys with more than 20 clients at TRCI, illuminate the conditions adults in custody are facing as the prison is rocked by the case spike. They described to the East Oregonian inconsistent mask wearing among prison staff, failures to both maintain social distancing and to separate quarantined and non-quarantined inmates, meager and expired food supplies, and an environment that has put inmates and prison staff at risk of infection since a power outage left the east side of the institution largely in the dark on Dec. 16, 2020.
The power was restored on Dec. 24, 2020, according to officials. But since then, infection has surged rapidly, with 281 additional inmates and 40 staff reportedly testing positive.
“Just because they’re an inmate doesn’t mean they don’t have people out there who love them,” said Erika Sjolander, whose husband, an inmate at TRCI, was rushed to the hospital on Thursday, Jan. 7, four days after testing positive in the outbreak.
Sjolander’s husband, who she said was to be released from the prison in 27 days, has asthma, diabetes and has gone through chemotherapy for cancer. She’s worried he won’t make it.
“He called me (on Wednesday, Jan. 6), and he could barely talk.” she said, crying. “And he says, ‘Tell my kids I love them. I might not make it home.’ And hearing that is breaking my heart.”
Baker and the anonymous inmate each said that since the virus began to spread through the prison in mid-December, infecting hundreds and forcing their unit into quarantine, prison staff had only conducted brief daily checks for temperature and symptoms.
They are released from their cells once a day for a brief phone call, which Troy Marin, an inmate, said is due to the shortage of staff caused by the outbreak.
In an email to the EO newsroom, officials from the department of corrections did not respond to multiple questions regarding the source’s allegations of minimal medical care, but said, “DOC employees are making decisions based on medical and operational expertise,” and added staff are limited by “institution design” and the number of hospital beds available for COVID-19 patients across the state.
Officials said inmates who require medical attention beyond what is available at the prison are transferred to hospitals. The officials did not respond to questions regarding the circumstances around the sick inmate in the cell near Baker who died.
The surge at TRCI comes as the state’s prison system endures a significant spike in cases, with 545 active cases among adults in custody as of Jan. 6, according to ODOC data. Only three of the state’s 15 prisons do not have current active cases.
In all, 2,690 adults in custody and 679 staff have reportedly tested positive in Oregon, and 26 inmates who contracted COVID-19 have died, according to the ODOC.
“It seems like the (department of corrections) is just really reactive,” Tara Herivel, a Portland-based attorney with more than 20 clients at TRCI, said. “They wait until the problem has taken over, no matter how predictable it is or not. Then when pressures are hard enough, they take action, whether adequate or not. They wait in a reactive kind of position, and it is just fatal in these circumstances.”
Some inmates at TRCI say they believe infection is stemming from prison workplaces, like the laundry unit or kitchen, where they say inmates from quarantined units are mixing with those who aren’t quarantined.
“Don’t get me wrong, I like my job, I like working,” said Troy Marin, an inmate at TRCI who works in the laundry unit. “But I don’t want my life being in jeopardy either.”
Inmates say that if they refuse to go to work, they will face retaliation by being placed in “the hole” — a segregated unit where inmates are sent when they misbehave.
Officials from the ODOC said, “It is impossible to definitively say what may have caused or exacerbated the outbreak at TRCI.” They said that health and safety measures like sanitization, mask wearing and social distancing are taking place to their “best ability.”
In response to a list of questions from the EO newsroom, the officials said, “ODOC cannot comment on specific allegations as they are subject to pending litigation in several cases.”
However, prison officials pointed out that earlier this week, a two-day trial before the Umatilla County Circuit Court regarding similar allegations resulted in a judge ruling the state “has not been deliberately indifferent to the COVID-19 conditions at TRCI, and that on the contrary, ODOC has invested significant resources and energy into fighting and preventing the spread of COVID-19 within the institution.”
When it began
On Dec. 10, after two prison staff tested positive a week before, corrections staff transferred 10 COVID-19-positive inmates from Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras to the medical isolation unit at Two Rivers, as first reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting. At the time of the transfer, Deer Ridge had more than 130 adults in custody with active cases.
Between Dec. 10 and Dec. 18, 2020, 47 additional inmates and six staff at TRCI tested positive.
Herivel said there are department of corrections policies against transferring inmates in and out of Tier-4 prisons — the highest level of quarantine based on cases at an individual prison. She said she believes the transfers are done when prisons run out of space for medical treatment and the institution is overcome by the spread of disease, “and this appears to have happened at TRCI,” she said.
“If you transfer people from a Tier-4 prison to another prison, and those people haven’t been tested but it turns out they’re positive, you are opening up a whole bunch of people to pain, suffering and possibly death,” Herivel said.
Officials said in the email that they were following transfer protocol.
On Dec. 16, a power outage caused by two wires shorting and exploding in a conduit underground after 20 years of degradation left an area where more than 600 inmates reside in the pitch black, according to officials and sources. Several days later, inmates were provided small, battery-powered lights to illuminate their cells, just as infection was ramping up in the prison.
For more than a week, inmates were released from their cells for about an hour a day to use the phone and shower. Aside from that — darkness.
“It’s weird, because you lose your sense of what’s going on,” said Frank Roof, an inmate, who added he considered causing trouble and getting himself put into “the hole” just to be in a cell with light. “You can’t read or you can’t do anything. You’re just laying there. Our cells aren’t big enough for two people to get up and move around at the same time.”
The 64-year-old Roof, a Type-2 diabetic, said inmates around him were receiving frozen, rancid meat, and their diet mostly consisted of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cookies and some fruit. Finally, a few days after the outage, they began to receive warm food in the form of a 3-ounce scoop of oatmeal, he said. Roof said the meals and inability to leave his cell left his blood sugar “out of control.”
Roof added that conditions during the power outage caused tensions to rise. Officers told him fights were breaking out and two staff had been assaulted due to the anger caused by the power outage, Roof said in December.
Meghan Bishop, an Oregon attorney who works in Washington, D.C., at the Rainey Center, and has a client at TRCI, said she believes the power outage exacerbated the COVID-19 outbreak. Her client, Craig Dawson, filed a claim against TRCI’s former superintendent, Tyler Blewett, claiming the prison does not follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Blewett resigned as superintendent of the prison on Dec. 15, 2020, after serving in the position for a year. The prison declined to provide any information about why Blewett resigned.
‘There’s no reason for them to be treated like that’
Bishop said her client has told her the movement of inmates to the showers and phone was disorganized and crowded, making it easier for the virus to spread. And when Dawson emailed her about correctional officers not wearing personal protective equipment while doing cell searches, he was put in “the hole,” she said.
Bishop said Dawson is medically vulnerable to COVID-19 due to multiple heart attacks, lung damage from pneumonia and high blood pressure. She said he told her he got food poisoning from eating expired foods during the outbreak.
“What is going on in prisons across the state is a result of choices,” she said. “The prison system chose not to implement CDC guidelines. They chose to not come down hard on (correctional officers) for not wearing masks. They chose not to implement mass testing.”
Bishop said the way prisons around Oregon are handling the outbreak could have long-standing effects.
“By not treating people who are incarcerated with dignity, by feeding them expired food, by locking them up 23 hours a day, by retaliating against them because they are seeing injustices within the prison walls, we are setting them up for failure once they’re released,” she said. “And what we’re seeing with (prisons in Oregon) due to COVID is people are now seeing the reality of what incarceration is. This has been going on for decades.”
Sources in nearly every interview with the East Oregonian said they blame prison staff for bringing the virus into TRCI, emphasizing the fact that it is impossible for inmates to go out and bring the virus in.
Prison officials said “all people entering a DOC institution are screened for COVID-19,” adding staff take employees’ temperatures and ask about symptoms relating to the coronavirus.
“DOC has brought institution outbreaks under control at other prisons and we will do it again thanks to the hard work and diligence of employees and AICs,” the officials said.
Friends and families of inmates are doubtful, dismayed, and are calling on the prison to implement stricter guidelines to keep their loved ones safe.
“I’m angry. I’m past concerned. I’m angry,” said Cheryl Baker, Brandon Baker’s mother, who said she hadn’t seen her son in person for nearly a year due to the virus. “There’s no reason for them to be treated like that. They’re not animals. One of them is my son.”