As the Lionshead and Santiam wildfires ravaged over 200,000 acres in Marion County on Sept. 8, Oregon Department of Corrections made a decisive move: evacuate three prisons at risk of burning.
On Tuesday, ODOC transferred approximately 1,450 inmates from Oregon State Correctional Institution, Santiam Correctional Institution and Mill Creek Correctional Facility to the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, bringing its inmate population up to 3,300.
The decision was necessary to protect the lives of prisoners and employees. But with nearly a quarter of Oregon's prison population now housed in one facility, it could spell disaster for the spread of COVID-19. And advocates say the state has had months to mitigate the risk of overcrowding in such a catastrophe by reducing prison populations early in the pandemic.
"It's not hard to see that this is a catastrophe in the making," says Juan Chavez, an attorney who represents Oregon inmates. "There are people who will catch COVID-19 in the next few weeks."
With the influx of new inmates, OSP's population increased by 78%. The facility already housed 1,850 adults in custody, and the additional 1,450 brings the total to 3,300. That means nearly a quarter of the 14,200 people incarcerated in Oregon are now housed in one facility.
Oregon Department of Corrections spokeswoman Jennifer Black says OSP normally has 2,075 beds, and that it has an additional 1,476 emergency beds, including cots and mattresses, for the influx of evacuated inmates. That's a total of 3,551 beds—enough for the 3,300 adults in custody.
Black says employees set up cots and mattresses in "open areas across the institution," including in the special housing unit and indoor recreation spaces.
Alex Meggitt, a lawyer with the Oregon Justice Resource Center, says he spoke to a client at OSP who said smoke from nearby fires has gotten into the building. The poor air quality adds an additional layer of concern, Meggitt says, because it could make it difficult for people to breathe. It remains unclear where prisoners will be transferred if OSP needs to be evacuated as well.
"It was already nearly impossible to social distance in prison, and they're all crowded into common areas," Meggitt said. "This just exacerbates existing problems. I'm frightened that there will be [an outbreak]."
Black says ODOC is currently focused on the immediate threat of wildfires, and noted that OSCI is near the mouth of Santiam Canyon, and that the fire and wind dictated that they evacuate on short notice.
"We are aware of the impact that this decision could have on the spread of COVID-19 within our facilities, and we are taking all available steps to mitigate that impact," Black said. "As we have said from the beginning, prisons were not constructed to allow for optimal social distancing. During the evacuations, DOC has utilized any available measures to ensure social distancing, but this crisis makes a challenging situation even more difficult."
Up until now, the three prisons that were evacuated had very few COVID cases relative to the total 1,053 cases among all ODOC facilities. Mill Creek Correctional Facility had zero staff and zero inmate cases; Santiam Correctional Institution had six staff and nine inmate cases; Oregon State Correctional Institution had two staff and zero inmate cases.
Chavez understands why ODOC needed to evacuate the prisoners who were located near the wildfires. But he says the issue could have been mitigated months ago, when a prison rights group sued Gov. Brown and demanded that she release swaths of vulnerable prisoners to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
That lawsuit is still ongoing. To date, Brown has released less than 1% of Oregon's prison population in order to prevent the spread of the virus.
"They gambled hard," Chavez said. "This was all predictable."