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Lawsuit Alleges 'Willful Indifference' Led To Deadly Conditions In Oregon Prisons


Cases of COVID-19 among inmates have pushed Oregon's prison system to a crisis point. A ruling by a federal judge last night ordered the state to offer vaccines to all inmates. It comes after 20 inmates died just last month. That is nearly half the total number of COVID-related prison deaths there since the pandemic began. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson reports.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: For more than two decades, Juan Daniel Tristan has been an inmate, most recently at the Oregon State Penitentiary. And on December 26, he was admitted to a hospital.

FELICIA RAMERIZ: He was having multi-organ failure.

WILSON: Felicia Rameriz is his niece. When Tristan arrived at the emergency room, he had pneumonia, was septic and tested positive for COVID-19.

RAMERIZ: Thankfully, I got to be there when he took his last breath. But we got one day with him - one day. And he was in the hospital for almost a month with nobody (crying). It just breaks my heart. Nobody deserves that.

WILSON: Rameriz is angry that for so long, no one from the prison told the family about her uncle's condition. They learned that through an inmate. She blames the prison for her uncle's death. Tristan died last month. He was 58 years old. His death and dozens of others illustrate what people in custody, their families and civil rights attorneys say about Oregon's prison system - that it's in crisis, unable to control the virus.

TARA HARRIVEL: We can see exactly why the pandemic is out of control in these prisons.

WILSON: Attorney Tara Harrivel leads a team of lawyers who represent more than 300 inmates across the state.

HARRIVEL: It's DOC-created conditions by failing or completely ignoring CDC guidelines for almost - what? - 10 months now.

WILSON: Time enough, she argues, for Oregon's prisons to manage the virus better. Harrivel's heard stories of guards not consistently wearing masks and, more recently, COVID-positive inmates not always separated from other inmates. Just a few weeks ago, she says, her client, a 79-year-old inmate, tested positive. She says the prison knew, but hours passed before he learned about his diagnosis.

HARRIVEL: He exposed his cellmate. He was allowed to go through areas with other prisoners. He was allowed to open doors, touch the phone, call me before he learned from me that he was positive.

WILSON: That inmate is in the Two Rivers Correctional Institution, a prison 200 miles east of Portland. It's had the deadliest outbreak so far, exploding after COVID-positive inmates transferred there. Prison officials declined an interview. In an email, they said inmates were kept separate. Since the string of deaths in January, the Department of Corrections says it's created medical isolation areas at the Two Rivers prison.

But the crisis remains systemwide. A group of inmates is suing the state over its handling of the pandemic, alleging leaders' lack of action amounts to deliberate indifference. Juan Chavez is their attorney.

JUAN CHAVEZ: To see something so avoidable so apparent and to stare that in the face and say, I don't care, it's galling. It hurts.

WILSON: Yesterday, in response to part of that litigation, a federal judge ordered the state to immediately offer COVID-19 vaccines to all prison inmates, more than 12,000 across the state. Chavez says the ruling prioritizes inmates the same as those living in nursing homes and other congregate care settings.

CHAVEZ: This is a potentially life-saving decision.

WILSON: State officials say they won't appeal the judge's ruling, though it's not clear when all of Oregon's prison inmates will start receiving their vaccines.

For NPR News, I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.