UMATILLA — A power outage at Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla has left the east side of the prison largely in darkness since Wednesday, Dec. 16, and has affected the institution’s physical plant, security, food and housing units with no clear end in sight, according to public information officers at TRCI and the Oregon Department of Corrections.
The power outage was the result of two wires shorting and exploding in a conduit underground after 20 years of degradation, prison officials said. The explosion affected other wires and has left an area that holds over 600 inmates in the dark.
Prison officials say there is no clear timeline for when the power will be back up and running, but that staff have been working around the clock to fix it along with the help of outside contractors.
Inmates are released from their cells once a day to take a shower and use the phone to call loved ones, according to Linda Simon, a public information officer at TRCI.
“Those (adults in custody) that are in their cells, they only come out for a short time to get their shower and get to a phone and all of that stuff in a very short time,” she said.
Inmates have been provided with small battery powered lights to illuminate their cells, Jennifer Black, a spokesperson for the state corrections department, said in an email to the East Oregonian.
The remaining 10 housing units at TRCI are running on normal operations, according to officials.
Simon declined to provide specifics detailing how security at TRCI had been compromised by the power outage, adding that it was out of her “purview.” She said the institution is “doing a really good job of maintaining safety and security.”
Emergency generators, which operate from 4:30 p.m. to 8 a.m., are currently powering the institution doors and the “day room” where inmates can make phone calls once a day, officials said.
Black said although inmates are provided with shorter periods than they typically get to call their loved ones, “it is equal to time (adults in custody) get out of cell at other institutions that don’t have dayrooms,” she said.
The institution currently has a mobile kitchen providing a hot breakfast and two sack lunches per day to inmates.
Adults in custody are still able to take phone calls with attorneys and courts throughout the day, according to Simon. Prison staff will continue to work through the holiday weekend to get the power back and running, Simon said.
“This is serious and we’re taking it serious and our staff are working on it,” she said.
The outage comes as the state’s prison system has been rocked by the coronavirus pandemic. More than 1,900 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus and 20 have died, the Associated Press reported. As of Monday, Dec. 21, 85 inmates at the Two Rivers prison were being treated for COVID-19.
“They’re going through a power outage of unknown length and pandemic conditions,” said Tara Herivel, an attorney with clients at Two Rivers. “This is severe. One or the other would be terrible.”
On Dec. 3 and 4, two employees tested positive. On Dec. 10, corrections staff transferred 10 COVID-19-positive inmates from Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras to the medical isolation unit at Two Rivers. Deer Ridge has over 130 inmates who are positive for the coronavirus, and they’ve had more than 200 cases in December alone.
On Dec. 10, two inmates at the Two Rivers prison tested positive for COVID-19. The next day, five more tested positive. By the end of last week, there were 40 additional inmates and four more staff at the prison who had tested positive for COVID-19.
“We understand that this is a terribly difficult time for the employees and (adults in custody) at TRCI, and we are working hard to resolve the issue,” Black said.
The Associated Press and Oregon Public Broadcasting contributed to this report.