We, the members of PHOENIX Rising Transitions, are deeply concerned about the possibility of rapid spread of COVID-19 in Oregon prisons. We propose, alongside others in the community, actions that will result in healthy outcomes for those living and working behind bars.
Recent news items about the spread of COVID-19 in prisons throughout the country, as well as reports from the prisoners we work with, have been alarming. With confirmed cases among staff and prisoners at Oregon Department of Corrections prisons, both are now at immediate and elevated risk of a concentrated and swift spread of COVID-19. A significant number of prisoners are especially vulnerable to the current pandemic. Many have myriad risk factors, including respiratory conditions, heart disease, and diabetes. Additionally, Oregon has many elderly prisoners especially susceptible to dying from COVID-19. This can lead to a catastrophic mortality rate if this is not addressed in a precise, urgent manner.
While the Oregon Department of Corrections has taken steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it is clear that they cannot contain the viral contagion when one takes into account the medical capabilities, architecture, layout, and sanitizing methods available. Those who live and work in corrections facilities are now facing an immediate risk of exposure and infection. To mitigate this risk, we urge the following:
I. In-Prison Mitigation Measures
Provide for adequate social distancing at all places and times in the prison – especially providing for more space and/or adequate barriers between sleeping prisoners.
Prisoners report that they are currently experiencing some distancing and staggering of schedules throughout the day, but are then sleeping in 80-person dorms with bunks spaced three feet apart at night. They are often not adequately distanced in the dining hall or in bathrooms. We propose that main hallways and corridors, unused classrooms and even exercise yards can be used to expand available space for adequate social distancing.
Ensure that staff are responsive to basic hygiene support by replacing soap in a timely manner.
Soap is not always available for adequate hand washing because staff are slow to refill soap dispensers though the prison has enough in stock.
Deliver masks to prisoners and staff as promised.
The Department of Corrections is working on getting two masks per person for staff and prisoners. It is unclear as of this writing whether or not they have been delivered.
Ensure that staff showing symptoms of COVID-19 (coughing, fever, etc.) are not at work and that they get tested before returning.
Our students report that staff with fevers have worked entire shifts in dorm units in close contact with prisoners.
Continue comprehensive testing in each prison.
ODOC has a comprehensive testing protocol established. We encourage continued use of this protocol.1
Create proper triage, treatment, and quarantine areas, not cells used for solitary confinement.
Sick prisoners who are seriously symptomatic are being held in isolation units normally used for solitary confinement. For many prisoners, this is a serious deterrent to reporting symptoms due to the trauma incurred by past experiences with solitary confinement.
II. Early Release Options
Adequate social distancing within prisons requires a significant reduction in the number of people held in Oregon’s prisons. Therefore, PHOENIX Rising Transitions calls for the following broader approaches to reducing the prison population.2
Approve early release for eligible prisoners, such as the elderly, medically compromised, people charged with non-violent crimes and those scheduled to be released within the next 3-6 months.
Gov. Kate Brown has stated that she is not considering any broad early release measures at this time, but will consider releases on a case-by-case basis3. Given the strong possibility of the rapid spread of COVID-19 in prison settings, we urge Gov. Brown to reconsider this as early release is the best means to stop its spread. Even if Gov. Brown continues to consider releases case-by-case, this should be expedited to thin out prison populations in order to keep people in prison safe.
Oregon should utilize empty buildings – like hotels and other lodging accommodations – as well as adding capacity to existing re-entry programs to house both those in normal transition and any potential early releases.
Some Oregon lodging accommodations already have experience housing individuals upon release from prison, and other hotels are showing great leadership in housing vulnerable communities safely. Still other vacant hotels can similarly be used as places where people can be housed and supervised post-release. We must address the significantly limited options faced by people being released from prison at this time while re-entry programs have been forced to reduce their number of residents to facilitate adequate social distancing.
Broaden eligibility for short-term transitional leave (STTL) and Alternative Incarceration Program (AIP).
STTL and AIP are approaches that Oregon has used for several years to safely return people to their families and communities when they are near the end of prison sentences. People released under STTL or in AIP can be safely supervised in their communities and should be considered when deciding whom to release. STTL and AIP could also be made more broadly available to others doing time, increasing the number of prisoners eligible for an early release.
Support community-based alternatives to incarceration and develop diversion programs for people convicted of addiction-driven drug and property crimes.
Several community-based alternatives to incarceration have successfully and safely reduced our prison bed use in the past. Many more can qualify. This can be done in a calculated and safe way with any method of broad screening prior to release.
We can slow or stop the spread of COVID-19 in our prisons and communities, but the time available to attempt these solutions is dwindling quickly.
Note: This statement is a working document to guide us in an overall response to the presence of COVID-19 in prisons. We expect to update it as new information is available.
- 1Department of Corrections website – COVID-19 Response: https://www.oregon.gov/doc/covid19/Pages/covid19-tracking.aspx
- 2Based on Early Release Options, Partnership for Safety and Justice, Press Release, April 23, 2020.
- 3“State said up to 6,000 Oregon inmates would face release to allow social distancing; Gov. Kate Brown said no,” The Oregonian, April 15, 2020.
PHOENIX Rising Transitions is a community-based nonprofit bringing together prisoners, former prisoners, and community members to facilitate the personal transformation and successful transition of people as they rejoin the community after prison. Our goal is to transform lives and transform the community to reduce the likelihood that people will commit new crimes and return to prison. We have been working in Oregon prisons – primarily Columbia River Correctional Institution in Portland – and with mentees in the Portland metro area since 2001.