Prison Rights Group Files Class Action Lawsuit Against Gov. Kate Brown, Oregon Department of Corrections

“Defendants do not have the capacity to test, treat or prevent COVID-19 outbreaks, which is a violation of plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.”

Coffee Creek Correctional Facility (Leah Nash)

The civil rights group Oregon Justice Resource Center filed a federal class action lawsuit April 6 against Gov. Kate Brown and the state prison system, alleging the Oregon Department of Corrections "willfully and wantonly ignored the public health threat caused by this global pandemic."

The class action lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Portland, includes seven plaintiffs who are inmates at various prisons across the state and are all in some ways more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19, either because of their age or pre-existing medical conditions, like asthma.

In addition to the governor, the lawsuit names Colette Peters, director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, and four other DOC employees. It seeks to improve current prison conditions and reduce the number of prisoners in custody.

"Courts, public health experts, and corrections professionals agree that significantly downsizing prison populations is the most important tool to combat the spread of COVID-19," the lawsuit says. "Defendants can comply through a number of mechanisms to ensure that unduly dangerous prisoners remain in custody."

The lawsuit says DOC is violating the Eighth Amendment, which guarantees prisoners not be subjected to "cruel and unusual punishment."

"Defendants do not have the capacity to test, treat or prevent COVID-19 outbreaks, which is a violation of plaintiffs' constitutional rights to treatment and adequate care," the complaint says.

The lawsuit cites several examples. It alleges DOC has not been able to provide masks to prisoners, testing for COVID-19 has been limited, there aren't negative-pressure rooms available for those who do test positive for the virus, and prisoners cannot maintain social distancing within the confined facilities.

A spokeswoman for the governor's office told WW that Brown and the Oregon Health Authority have been working with the DOC to monitor the potential impacts of COVID-19 on prison staff and the people in custody.

"They have already implemented a number of strategies to address COVID-19, and to keep staff and AICs safe amid this unprecedented outbreak," the spokeswoman said. "Clemency and early release may be a strategy that the Governor considers, but as of today, no decisions have been made."

The Portland Mercury first reported on two Oregon prisoners with compromised immune systems on April 3.

This isn't the first time DOC's epidemic policies have come into question. In 2018, WW reported on the department's failure to provide flu shots to inmates, an investigation that prompted corrections to offer vaccinations to those who are incarcerated.

One of the new lawsuit's plaintiffs, Paul Maney, is 62 years old and has been assigned to the hazard cleanup team for nearly three decades—a job that requires him to clean up blood, vomit and "other bodily fluids."

"Mr. Maney has received no training or protective gear (other than gloves) for the cleanup of fluids from COVID-19 patients," the complaint says.

Another plaintiff, 53-year-old David Hart, has a serious respiratory condition. When he developed a high fever, cough and lethargy, he tested positive for influenza. Despite his requests, the department also would not let him get a test for COVID-19. And while quarantined for the flu, the lawsuit says, Hart was required to get his meals with the rest of the prison population.

"At [Columbia River Correctional Institution], a living unit of approximately 80 prisoners shares three toilets, two urinals, four showers and five sinks, with a single soap dispenser," the lawsuit says. "The yard at CRIC is still open, with up to 158 prisoners at a time sharing the space and using common recreational equipment."

Other facilities, including Coffee Creek Correctional Facility and Two Rivers Correctional Institution, were also listed in the complaint as violating prisoners' rights.

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