Prison Officials Promised Greater Smoke Safety. How’d They Do?

DOC’s report listed several fixes it intended to make—most crucially, the creation of a wildfire evacuation plan, which did not exist prior to last year’s evacuations.

Oregon State Penitentiary CROWDED PEN: Last year, inmates from four prisons were evacuated to Oregon State Penitentiary to avoid wildfire smoke. (Henry Cromett) (Henry Cromett)

In December, nearly three months after the Oregon Department of Corrections hastily evacuated more than 2,500 inmates from four state prisons as wildfires encroached on the Central Willamette Valley, the department pledged to do better.

The agency’s “after-action report” evaluated prison response to a climate emergency that will likely be an annual occurrence in Oregon for every summer to come.

There was a lot to mull. During the September 2020 wildfires, three men’s prisons in Salem were evacuated to Oregon State Penitentiary—the state’s only maximum-security prison, also in Salem. WW reported extensively on allegations of fights between rival gangs, tampering with food, and the rampant spread of COVID-19.

The state also evacuated prisoners from Coffee Creek Correctional Facility—the state’s only women’s prison—to Deer Ridge Correctional Institution. The women reported hourslong bus rides in which they had to urinate and defecate in socks that they then threw out a bus window, and dangerous medical events, like seizures, caused by an inability to access medications.

DOC’s report listed several fixes it intended to make—most crucially, the creation of a wildfire evacuation plan, which did not exist prior to last year’s evacuations. As wildfire season hits another crescendo, WW reviewed DOC’s after-action report and asked the department if it had made the improvements it promised last winter.

1. Promised improvement: Create a wildfire evacuation plan.

Did they fix it? Yes. “All DOC institutions have wildfire evacuation plans,” says spokeswoman Jennifer Black. “However, these plans are not shared outside of the agency. Public knowledge of these plans could compromise the safety and security of our employees, adults in custody, institutions and travel plans.”

2. Promised improvement: Enforce proper separation between rival inmates (e.g., gangs, people under protective custody, victims and assailants).

Did they fix it? Kind of. Inmates might still be transferred to a prison where the gang they’re trying to avoid is held. “Based on lessons learned from the 2020 wildfire evacuations,” however, Black says, “future evacuations will include greater separation of the evacuated populations from one another (if more than one institution is evacuated to the same location) and the receiving institution’s AIC population will also have modified operations (e.g., meals in place, showering and recreating separately, etc.).”

3. Promised improvement: Following reports by women prisoners of poor conditions inside Deer Ridge Correctional Institution, which had been closed for years before being used during the wildfires, DOC vowed to properly maintain all “mothballed” facilities so they are “kept in a state of readiness.” The report specifically cited necessary improvements to DRCI’s unoccupied minimum- and medium-security facilities.

Did they fix it? Not really. Black says inspections and restorations have continued at Deer Ridge’s minimum-security facility, which is not currently in use. Other vacated prisons, including Shutter Creek and Mill Creek correctional institutions, are not in proper shape. “At this time, DRCI Minimum is the only vacant facility being considered for potential evacuation housing,” Black says. “While the medium facility has operational capacity to feed both institutions, work is also continuing to bring the DRCI Minimum kitchen to full readiness.”

4. Promised improvement: Invest in additional training for staff, “especially for managers and other staff asked to lead during future emergencies,” the department wrote in the report. The report said DOC was “looking into” Federal Emergency Management Agency training in particular.

Did they fix it? It’s unclear. Black says DOC has continued to provide online incident-command training to employees, already a requirement for all new officers, but that she is not aware of any additional emergency training for employees. She says some managers received training “in the form of tabletop exercises.” She did not respond to further questions by press deadlines.

5. Promised improvement: Transfer all inmate medical records online, and allow adults in custody to bring their in-cell medical items and toiletries with them in the case of an evacuation.

Did they fix it? Mostly. “In the event of an evacuation, current plans now include allowing and directing all AICs to pack and travel with their basic hygiene and in-cell medical items,” Black says. “Thanks to funding approved in the 2019-21 biennium, DOC is actively engaged in our electronic health records project. The agency expects a request for proposal to be released soon.”

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