Press Statement
Contact: Talia Gad, Communications Director
talia@safetyandjustice.org or (971) 409-5748
April 3, 2020

Immediate action needed to prevent spread of
Covid-19 in Oregon’s correction facilities

Covid-19 is now in Oregon’s prisons, and we have to take immediate action to save lives by safely managing Oregon’s prison population in a way that ensures the health and safety of Oregon’s prisoners, prison staff, their families, and our communities.

Oregon has long been a leader in flatlining prison growth, and we must now flatten the curve of the Covid-19 virus. We’re calling on the Governor to act by doing what executive leaders have done in other states and what is in line with what public health experts recommend: To grant release decisions to the Department of Corrections.

There are a number of safe ways to reduce the overcrowding in our prisons — approaches that can ensure both public health and public safety of all communities.

With the two confirmed cases within OSP and SCI, these facilities are now at immediate and elevated risk of rapid spread of the virus, similar to what we’ve seen in prisons in other states, cruise ships, and other confined spaces. It’s not practical to expect that facilities can contain the spread when people live in close quarters with limited access to sanitation.

People who live and work in correctional facilities are now facing an acute risk of exposure and must be protected.[1] The front lines in our prison facilities are enormously vulnerable to contracting the virus, including correctional guards, medical staff, as well as the prisoners themselves.

We propose the following approach to promote public health and public safety:

  1. Ensure that staff and medical providers have access to personal protective equipment (PPE). Basic medical equipment is essential to ensure the safety of corrections professionals as well as people who are incarcerated. Corrections staff must be prioritized in receiving the protective equipment they need to properly care for patients.
  2. Oregon can and should look into utilizing existing empty buildings like hotels and lodging accommodations, as well as adding capacity to existing re-entry programs. Some Oregon lodging accommodations already have experience housing individuals upon release from prison, and other hotels are showing great leadership in safely housing vulnerable communities, such as people experiencing homelessness. Other vacant hotels can similarly be used as places where people can be safely housed and supervised.
  3. Short-term transitional leave (STTL) and the Alternative Incarceration Program (AIP) are approaches that Oregon has used for several years to safely return people to their families and communities when they are near the very end of prison sentences. People released under STTL or in AIP are people who can be safely supervised in their communities and who should be considered for supervision instead.
  4. Similarly, several community-based alternatives to incarceration have successfully and safely reduced our prison bed use. People convicted of addiction-driven drug and property crimes are among those who are frequently safely supervised in our communities, and many more can qualify. Parents and other caretakers who are incarcerated for addiction-related crimes can be among those who return to their children or aging parents who need support and stability as families navigate the pandemic in their day-to-day lives. This can be done safely with proper screening prior to release.

With health disparities being what they are among incarcerated people, a disproportionate number of prisoners are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic. Many have chronic conditions and other risk factors, including respiratory conditions, heart disease, diabetes, and people who are elderly, which make them especially susceptible to dying from Covid-19. This can lead to a catastrophic mortality rate if we don’t act quickly.

We can and must take action and continue Oregon’s leadership in promoting both public safety and public health. We can curb the spread in our prisons and communities, but the window for meaningful action is closing.

Let’s act now.

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[1] “How Prisons and Jails Can Respond to the Coronavirus.” https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/how-prisons-and-jails-can-respond-to-the-coronavirus