Oregon Department of Corrections Accused of Lax Safety Practices and Whistleblower Retaliation

An Oregon State Correctional Institution employee says suicidal inmates have been put in danger.

Oregon State Penitentiary (Henry Cromett)

A Salem prison employee is accusing the Oregon Department of Corrections of retaliating after she reported a series of safety lapses.

Kristine Gates, a manager in the Oregon State Correctional Institution’s mental health unit, filed a whistleblower lawsuit in Marion County Circuit Court yesterday. It accuses ODOC, her union and her supervisors of failing to heed years of complaints—and then putting her under investigation and offering her a demotion.

Neither ODOC or its union, the Association of Corrections Employees, responded to a request for comment.

The allegations detailed in the complaint stretch back to 2021, when Gates reported she was being stalked by a co-worker, Jon Wiles, who was watching her through the prison’s surveillance system. That summer, she found out Wiles had been following her and taking photos of her home, the complaint alleges.

Wiles also did not respond to WW’s request for comment.

Gates reported the stalking to her superiors, but Wiles was not reassigned or ultimately disciplined.

Wiles holds great sway at the Oregon State Correctional Institution. He was voted head of the corrections union at the prison in 2011 and used his authority to halt Gates’ initiatives, she claims, shutting down a mental health dayroom, for instance, that Gates was organizing.

Gates says she later learned that the union had protested the disciplining of Wiles and ultimately had a recommended reprimand reversed.

“Instead of stopping the conduct, ODOC allowed it to continue, and allowed the offending officer and his fellow union members to monitor, discriminate and retaliate against Gates. She complained over 10 times, but the offending officer was never held accountable,” the legal complaint says.

Meanwhile, Gates was fighting to address safety concerns at the prison, including the use of “black box” practices in its solitary confinement unit, which involved locking inmates behind a second layer of security doors without an intercom to communicate with guards. In a memo, Gates noted that these practices were found to be unconstitutional by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“OSCI has never made the required modification,” she wrote in a memo. The assistant superintendent of OSCI, Jeremy Wagner, then told her to “chill out,” Gates claims. The black box practices remained in place.

In 2022, Gates claims a prisoner told her he was suicidal and that “they want me to kill myself here.” He explained that a guard watched him attempting suicide and did nothing. The prisoner was later hospitalized. Gates then obtained security footage that confirmed the prisoner’s story, the complaint alleges.

When Gates reported the incident to her superiors, it was she who was put under investigation. Supervisors accused her of obtaining the surveillance footage without permission. Meanwhile, the guard who witnessed the incident and did nothing remains on suicide watch duty, the complaint alleges.

Earlier this year, Gates directed a suicidal prisoner be put under direct observation and the blankets removed from their cell. The supervisor was the same guard who witnessed the earlier suicide attempt, the complaint says.

The blankets were never removed from the cell. The prisoner had to be hospitalized anyway after reopening self-inflicted wounds, she alleges.

Gates told her supervisor that she no longer felt safe working at the prison and that she can’t report safety issues without fear of further retaliation. ODOC then offered her a demotion to the Oregon State Penitentiary, the complaint alleges.

“Because ODOC has allowed a culture of whistleblower retaliation and intimidation to thrive within its walls, and because Ms. Gates’ repeated attempts at accountability were ignored, Ms. Gates had no choice but to file this lawsuit to shine a light on ODOC’s discrimination against her, to stop its ongoing harm, and to try to hold it accountable,” the complaint reads. Gates is asking for $5 million in damages.

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