This week, we cover the prison evacuations in Oregon as wildfires tear through the state and down the coast. On Tuesday, September 8, the ODOC announced on Facebook that it had evacuated 1,450 prisoners from Mill Creek, Santiam and Oregon State correctional institutions which were threatened by the Beachie Creek and Lionshead wildfires. Then on Thursday, September 10, 1300 female prisoners were evacuated from Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville to Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras.
In order to get a closer look at the situation, Perilous correspondent Ryan Fatica spoke with a prisoner named Bryan MacDonand who was evacuated to the Oregon State Penitentiary. Bryan described the conditions he is living through as the constant threat of COVID-19 collides with the dangers of smoke inhalation, lack of adequate food and medication and the violence of the prison environment.
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The newest disaster inside Oregon prisons is raging from the outside in. As one of the most severe fire seasons attacks the West coast, prisoners across Oregon are being shuffled into sub-standard conditions and possible COVID-19 exposure as Governor Brown continues to deny releases.
The COVID-19 pandemic is slow moving in comparison to the fires cascading across the state and threatening several major metro areas. But these two calamities are joining forces along with a seemingly steadfast Governor to further endanger the lives of Oregon prisoners
The risk of infection of and death from COVID-19 has not diminished as other emergencies have escalated. This is clear in the 6th prisoner death in the Oregon system at Snake River Correctional Institution (SRCI) on September 8th. Snake River is near the Idaho border and has had a major outbreak of COVID-19, along with allegations that the majority Idaho-based staff have been flagrantly ignoring quarantine protocols.
On the other side of the state, the fires moving quickly up and down the I-5 corridor have put several prisons in the path of destruction. On Tuesday September 8, the ODOC announced on Facebook that it had evacuated 1,450 prisoners from Mill Creek, Santiam and Oregon State correctional institutions which were threatened by the Beachie Creek and Lionshead wildfires. The prisoners were evacuated to the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP), also in Salem, where they will be housed on “emergency beds throughout the institution” until the threat has passed.
At the time of that decision, OSP was already in the throes of its own COVID-19 outbreak. At least 143 positive cases of COVID-19 have been reported at the facility.
On Thursday, September 10, 1300 female prisoners were evacuated from Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville to Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras.
Deer Ridge is a mixed security facility with a 774-bed minimum-security unit and a 1,228-bed medium-security unit. In order to accommodate the nearly 1000 women transferred into Deer Ridge, a minimum-security building not used since 2016 was opened to take in men from the larger medium security unit at Deer Ridge. The units lacked phones, adequate ventilation and was infested with mice and mold according to the prisoners able to get communications to the outside.
Lawyers for some of the women transferred have detailed harrowing accounts of neglect and deplorable conditions during the transfer on social media. “Women were urinating on the bus, others bleeding through their menstrual products” one account reads.
Prisoners were reportedly zip tied for the duration of the several hour drive between the two facilities. Upon entering they found supplies were spread thin including meals being offered and that they would not be given their daily medications, some of which they are going on two days without.
On Friday September 11, according to reporting from The Bulletin, around 200 prisoners in Deer Ridge kicked through doors and forced their way into the yard as smoke conditions became uninhabitable inside. According to a Oregon DOC news alert all but 12 of the people originally staging the mass refusal had returned inside by 2am. And while the Crisis Negotiation Team was deployed, the DOC assured that no force was used to clear the yard.
Back in Salem, prisoners continue to live in cramped conditions in which violence and deprivation are the norm. One of the prisoners who was evacuated, Brain MacDonald, spoke with Perilous about his experience of the evacuation
In the last two months, there have been three hunger strikes in prison and jail facilities in Oregon–at the Lane County Jail, the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, and Multnomah County Detention Center. In the wake of these strikes, outside advocates have formed a coalition to address conditions in carceral facilities in Oregon. In order to better understand this work and to get some background on the situation, Perilous spoke with Ducky, a representative of the Siskeyou Prison Abolition and Fight Toxic Prisons.
Many thanks to Brian MacDonald for sticking his neck out to talk to us and to Lane County Mutual Aid for their hard work and dedication in supporting prisoners at the Lane County Jail during the recent hunger strike there and for getting us in touch with Bryan. Thanks also to Ducky and everyone else at Siskeyou Prison Abolition and Fight Toxic Prisons for the work they’re doing to advocate for prisoners in the midst of this crisis. Portions of the script for this show were adapted from an article by Lena Mercer for Perilous Chronicle. To read Lena’s full article and for more information on the groups mentioned here, check out our show notes.