Photo of the outside of the Oregon State Penitentiary outside of Salem, Oregon.Local News & Events

“This is a bloodbath”: Oregon State Penitentiary forcing inmates into “inhumane” conditions amid wildfires, pandemic

Activists, aid workers, and inmates alike are sounding the alarm over inhumane conditions inside the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.

As wildfires exploded in both size and ferocity throughout the state during the week of Labor Day, inmates from three prisons–Mill Creek, Santiam, and the Oregon State Correctional Institution (OSCI)–were transferred to OSP due to the encroaching flames. 

Though this was ostensibly done to keep inmates safe from the fires, it has led to extreme overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and often brutal reprisal from correctional officers struggling to enforce their wills over those housed inside the prison.

“It’s a nightmare in there right now,” said Evan, an activist with Lane County Hunger Strike who requested only their first name be cited. “There’s no masks, no social distancing, no protections for those inside whatsoever.” 

As of Sept. 10, 179 people inside the OSP had tested positive for COVID-19, 143 of which are inmates–one of the worst outbreaks in the entire state. According to state records, six inmates have died of the virus.

“There are no COVID protections. None.” said an inmate inside the OSP, who wished to remain anonymous due to a fear of retaliation for speaking out on conditions. “We are sleeping inches away from each other. There is very little cleaning, if any, being done. In fact, hygiene has completely been taken away. I’ve had only one shower in a week and I’m still wearing the same socks as I was Tuesday. So, there’s no COVID protection. They’ve done absolutely nothing. This prison has COVID and they’re bringing even more COVID cases in… they’re not doing any temperature checks.”

At this time, over 4,500 inmates are currently held inside OSP. The prison’s maximum capacity is 2,242 inmates.

“I would say it’s a room maybe 40 feet by 40 feet,” the source inside OSP said about the conditions at the prison. “On the outside they have cages. And in the middle of it, the phones are on a stage. All of our beds are set up on the floor. It’s not a big room, it’s not tiny… but there is no way possible to fit 50 people and social distance. Even if you were to stand, it’s absolutely impossible. There is one bathroom for about 65 inmates total and there are two toilets in there.”

The smoke from the wildfires, which has given the West Coast of the United States the worst air quality on the planet, is a major concern for inmates. An air quality index (AQI) above 100 is considered harmful; the area around Salem has been recording AQIs between 400 to 500 over the last week.

Image of Interstate 5 at the OR-22 overpass outside of Salem, OR on Sept. 11, 2020. Salem recorded an Air Quality Index (AQI) over 500 on Sept. 11; anything above 100 is considered hazardous to human health. (Credit: Oregon Department of Transportation // Flickr)

“Smoky conditions inside the building are bad,” the inmate said. “One of the things we’ve actually been able to do to gather evidence, this is pretty strong. One of the gentlemen here has a CPAP machine and in the CPAP machine it has a filter, it was all clogged up and nasty. So we asked them for a clean one, he inserted a clean filter and was going to save it for tonight when it was going, but we all got curious to see how bad the air quality is in the room that we’re breathing. He turned his CPAP machine off for an hour and a half, and the filter was completely clogged and disgusting.”

In addition to overcrowded conditions and hazardous air quality, violence has been erupting inside the OSP throughout the week. 

The OSP is the state’s only maximum security prison, and is the site of the state’s Death Row inmates. Mill Creek is minimum security, OSCI is medium security, and Santiam is designed to house mental health patients from the Oregon State Hospital. 

According to the inmate, several people inside OCSI were in so-called “protective custody” for turning state witness and testifying against criminals that were eventually sentenced to time in the OSP. Because of the evacuations, those state witnesses are now sharing cell blocks with the people they testified against. Many of those testified against members of rival gangs. As a result, there are rampant assaults and fights breaking out inside the OSP.

“It’s a bloodbath,” said the inmate in a call that was later transcribed and released on Twitter by the activists at Lane County Hunger Strike. “And it’s becoming the normal (sic) here, and it’s absolutely unacceptable.”

To quell the violence inside the prison, correctional officers have been deploying OC gas, which is akin to military-grade pepper spray, which has only exacerbated conditions inside the prison.

“It’s incredibly potent stuff,” the inmate said. “So when they’re using it [in] enclosed spaces, they get everyone that they’re trying to get, like the people who are fighting, the combatants. But because it’s an enclosed space. it just spreads throughout the entire room. And [then] you have an entire room, coughing, sneezing, eyes watering, mucus coming out of your nose. And the whole time you’re expected to [sit] still, while this is going on, hurry up and eat your food, and get out.”

Inmates from a fourth prison–the Coffee Creek Correctional Institution outside of Wilsonville, which primarily houses female inmates–were transferred to Deer Ridge, outside of Madras in Eastern Oregon. 

On Friday, inmates at Deer Ridge protested the overcrowded and “unlivable” conditions. Department of Corrections spokesperson Jennifer Black told The Oregonian that the protest was dispersed without the use of force by a crisis negotiation team, though they acknowledged that 12 inmates were moved to “special housing units” (typically reserved for inmates suffering from severe mental or emotional disturbances) or transferred elsewhere.

Officials for the DOC could not be reached by Double Sided Media for comment. Officials from Governor Kate Brown’s office were also unavailable for comment as of press time.

In response to the worsening conditions inside Oregon prisons, a coalition of prison abolition groups–including Lane County Hunger Strike, Siskiyou Abolition Project, Black and Pink PDX, Care Not Cops, and Critical Resistance–have amended their list of demands for Governor Brown, ODOC Director Collette Peters and Assistant to ODOC Director Jessica Freeburn.

“1) Immediately reduce the Oregon prison population by at least 50 percent, including the release of all prisoners or detainees with underlying conditions, immuno-compromised and pregnant prisoners, and those over 50, as well as all prisoners who are within a year of finishing their sentences.

2) Provide all prisoners access to adequate personal protective equipment, including N95 masks, gloves, and adequate sanitizing supplies like soap, hand sanitizer, and bleach.”

3) Give all prisoners at least one free 20-minute telephone call per day to compensate for the denial of visitation rights.

4) Provide free commissary for all prisoners for the duration of this health crisis.

5) Instate a moratorium on new intakes into Oregon prisons, and use your institutional power to advocate for a 50 percent reduction in the Oregon jail population, reinstate the constitutional right to a fair and speedy trial, and put an end to both cash bail and pretrial detention.”

Additionally, the groups are calling for a statewide “phone zap” campaign to the Department of Corrections and Gov. Brown’s office to address the conditions inside Oregon prisons.

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