Last Month, Oregon Prisons Implored Guards to Wear Masks. Since Then, Four Inmates Have Died From COVID-19.

“I want to acknowledge we each have—and are entitled to—our own thoughts and opinions on face coverings.”

A masked Portland police officer in an April parade to thank first responders. (Wesley Lapointe)

In a July 13 email obtained by WW, Oregon Department of Corrections deputy director Heidi Steward implored prison staff to wear masks or face coverings. Since then, four inmates who tested positive for the coronavirus have died.

"Team, I need your help," Steward's email begins. "I want to acknowledge we each have—and are entitled to—our own thoughts and opinions on face coverings. I also recognize it is difficult to wear a face covering for an eight-hour shift, not to mention up to 16 hours on an overtime shift. For these reasons, most of us have not been required to wear face coverings at all times. We require 6 feet of social distancing and, if that cannot be maintained, we must wear a face covering."

Current ODOC rules mandate that staff wear masks when they are within 6 feet of another person. In the email, Steward noted that the agency has struggled to enforce this mandate.

"It is becoming difficult to stand our ground on our current directive, as not all of us are following it," Steward wrote. "If we do not pull together and wear our face coverings when we can't maintain 6 feet of social distancing, we may be mandated to wear masks at all times. I will have no control over that decision, nor will our Agency Operations Center. I am in no way pointing fingers, as I too need to be more mindful about putting on my face covering when I'm within 6 feet of others."

In the six weeks since Steward sent the email, four inmates have died from COVID-19. Three of them were incarcerated at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution—two died on Aug. 26 and one on Aug. 20. Another man who was incarcerated at Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario died Aug. 12.

Until this group of deaths, there had been only one recorded death of an ODOC inmate related to COVID-19, back in May.

Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution—the site of the three most recent deaths—has seen a steady uptick in cases since early July. ODOC data shows that between July 31 and Aug. 3, 57 inmates tested positive for the virus.

EOCI is located in Umatilla County, which has had 2,599 COVID-19 cases, according to the Oregon Health Authority. That places it fourth statewide, behind the three most populous counties in the state: Multnomah, Washington and Marion. (Umatilla's population ranks 13th, according to the Oregon secretary of state's website.)

In an email to WW, ODOC spokeswoman Vanessa Vanderzee said the agency has been "monitoring and addressing mask use among employees."

"DOC is extremely concerned about the recent deaths of adults in custody (AICs) and the increase in positive COVID-19 cases across the state," Vanderzee said. "Deputy director Steward's July 13 message was just one piece in the agency's ongoing effort to educate our employees and AICs, ensure institution best practices align with the most up-to-date health recommendations, and keep everyone as safe and healthy as possible."

She said the "vast majority" of staff wear face coverings when social distancing is not an option, and that staff are diligent in symptom screening.

In June, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced she had commuted the sentences of 57 inmates who were considered to be medically vulnerable to COVID-19. On Tuesday, Brown announced she is asking ODOC to prepare another list by Sept. 18 of medically vulnerable inmates who may be eligible for early release.

In a statement released Thursday, the executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, Bobbin Singh, said the latest death shows the consequences of "our state's choice to do as little as possible to mitigate the risk of harm from COVID-19 within our prisons."

"We must accept reality, which is that Oregon is currently failing its incarcerated residents and their loved ones," Singh said. "Three of Oregon's largest outbreaks are in prisons. Choices were available that may have prevented the five deaths we have now seen of incarcerated Oregonians who had COVID when they died. Community members, public health experts, and civil rights advocates have been pressing for a different approach for months now, but the state chose to ignore these voices."

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