A four-day civil trial in Malheur County last month provided a window into one potential reason Oregon prisons have seen the state's largest outbreaks of COVID-19: Some of the guards don't believe the pandemic is real.
"I'm at a war right now trying to get people to vaccinate over the anti-vaccine information," testified Dr. Garth Gulick, chief medical officer at Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario, Ore., during the February trial. "I also live in a part of the country where the staff is incredibly ingrained that 'masking is stupid, this virus doesn't hurt.' Especially back in September [and] October, it was a major problem convincing staff, and even some of the inmates, that this wasn't a conspiracy."
Sworn testimony by Snake River prison administrators, reviewed for the first time by WW, display the difficulties the Oregon Department of Corrections faces in vaccinating a workforce responsible for introducing the virus into prisons that subsequently became the sites of enormous COVID outbreaks.
To date, more than 3,500 of Oregon's roughly 13,000 inmates, and at least 830 prison staffers, have tested positive for the coronavirus. Forty-two prisoners have died after contracting the virus.
Snake River staff described a culture among prison guards who flout mask mandates by their employer and believe COVID-19 is no worse than the flu.
Plenty of Americans share those views, even after more than half a million deaths from the virus. But the opinions of Oregon prison guards matter because they oversee a confined population. The department's infectious disease doctor testified in November that all but one COVID outbreak in Oregon prisons had been introduced by staff.
Many of the corrections officers guarding Oregon's inmates at Snake River are not Oregonians. Instead, they live in Idaho—a hotbed of COVID skepticism.
"We live in a very conservative part of the country," said Gulick, who also lives in Idaho. "The staff here tend to listen much more to the conservative news media that's really minimized the benefits of masking, vaccines."
DOC spokeswoman Vanessa Vanderzee said the agency has used an array of communication methods to provide accurate COVID information to inmates. "DOC team members have the same hopes, fears and hesitations associated with the vaccine as the rest of Americans," Vanderzee said. "DOC has worked hard to listen to staff concerns, combat popular myths, and provide informative materials about the vaccine from the experts: the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Oregon Health Authority."
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees told WW the vast majority of the corrections officers it represents recognize that the COVID-19 pandemic is real and dangerous. "A few offhand comments or statements of personal opinions that may have been unduly or improperly influenced by political individuals' rhetorical misdirection regarding the COVID-19 pandemic are certainly not indicative of the beliefs of our nearly 3,500 members in corrections," AFSCME said in a a statement.
Those opinions were discussed during the February trial for a legal petition filed by a Snake River inmate, Mark Lawson, who contends the Department of Corrections violated the Eighth Amendment with its "deliberate indifference to [his] serious medical needs" during the pandemic. (The case is ongoing.)
Lawson initially refused the COVID vaccine. His attorney, Katharine Edwards, argues that Lawson was misinformed when he signed a waiver not to get the shots, because he didn't get the chance to speak with a doctor about his concerns, she alleges. That is why Edwards and the state spent hours dissecting the politicization of COVID-19 in Oregon prisons.
Jason Bell, assistant superintendent at Snake River, testified Feb. 23 that he decided against sharing an educational video of himself getting vaccinated, for fear it would cause a backlash.
"I was going to put it out for people to see, and then I'm like, I don't know if that's the best idea," Bell said. "Politics sometimes can come into play. This side of the state is probably mostly Republican, and the other side of the state in Oregon is Democratic."
Snake River Correctional Institution is located in Malheur County, nearly 400 miles east of Portland and about an hour's drive west of Boise. It has the highest COVID rate per capita of any Oregon county—about 10,560 cases per 100,000 people, according to the Oregon Health Authority. It also has the highest test positivity rate in the state, at 18%. (In contrast, Multnomah County has under 4,000 cases per 100,000 people and a positivity rate of 5%.) That's excluding the positive cases of Idaho residents who work at Snake River, state officials say.
The prison is the largest employer in Malheur County, the Malheur Enterprise reported. And 71% of the 870 employees at Snake River live in Idaho, Vanderzee said.
Bell described enforcing mask use among both staff and inmates as a "constant issue" that requires "constant reminders." He said a couple of staffers outright refused.
Gulick said the same.
"[At] Snake River, we struggle with both [inmate] mask compliance and with staff mask compliance," he said. "I'm called a 'mask Nazi' here."
That perception is backed up by a January civil complaint against the corrections department signed by more than 70 inmates. The complaint alleges DOC staff have referred to the coronavirus as a "hoax, an election scare, a 'plandemic' or otherwise indicat[ed] allegiance with unhinged conspiracy theories and lies about the COVID-19 virus."
John David Burgess, an attorney on that case, says about half of the 140 inmates he's spoken to during the pandemic tell him prison staff has expressed views discounting or undermining the seriousness the virus.
One of the plaintiffs was transferred to Snake River in October from East Oregon Correctional Institution, in Pendleton, to be treated for COVID-19. "Staff told plaintiff Wayne Woodruff that 'the quicker everyone got [COVID-19] the better,'" the complaint alleges. "Many corrections staff called the pandemic an 'election scare' and a hoax."
Misinformation can transmit rapidly in state prisons, where the people in custody have scant access to outside channels.
"Word of mouth is the primary way in which inmates learn any information," Burgess says. "They have extremely limited access to the news. The first information they're going to get is from staff, so if somebody says something, it's immediately going to be circulated throughout the inmates."
In early February, Burgess says, two women inmates at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville told him corrections staff had said the vaccine could cause infertility. Two other Oregon prison lawyers told WW they heard the same claim.
"The infertility one is a big one that I've heard over and over," said Edwards, the attorney in the Malheur suit.
In a different federal lawsuit, led by the Oregon Justice Resource Center, the plaintiffs said in a February court filing that male inmates had heard the vaccine would "make them sterile."
In February, a federal judge ordered Oregon prisons to vaccinate all inmates "as soon as possible." To date, at least 70% of DOC's inmates have accepted first doses of the vaccine, although the rates are lower at some prisons. This month, active cases have dropped significantly to less than 20 statewide.
Vaccination rates of DOC staff, however, are unclear. The department stopped tracking that information earlier this year.
The burden to convey the safety and efficacy of vaccines to prisoners typically falls on the shoulders of medical staff, like Gulick.
"You definitely try to pick the ones that you think you can change their mind," Gulick said. "I'd rather spend extra time with somebody who has valid complaints than somebody [who] is dead set that this is a government conspiracy and there's a nanochip in the vaccine."