The Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC) announced today that they are merging four state prisons into one even though we are in the middle of a deadly global pandemic. All inmates at the Santiam Correctional Institution (SCI), Mill Creek Correctional Facility (MCCF), and Oregon State Correctional Institution (OSCI) are all being moved to the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP). Correctional institutions have been at extremely high risk of major COVID-19 outbreaks since day one. It is almost impossible to practice any form of social distancing in jails and prisons. The only possible remedies are institution wide lockdowns and isolating inmates. Cramming four prisons together into one is just begging for a major outbreak.
An inmate at SCI and a staff member at OSP both tested positive for COVID-19 back in April (https://copblaster.com/blast/4423/inmates-and-staff-test-positive-for-coronavirus-in-oregon-prisons). In July, OSP was reported as have the largest correctional facility outbreak in the state and being among the leaders in workplace infections (https://www.kgw.com/article/news/health/coronavirus/64-active-workplace-outbreaks-oregon/283-38f7215d-3d73-412f-a368-50b353144e7e). We are not sure if there have been any cases at MCCF or OSCI, but there probably will be now that over 1,400 inmates are being crammed into OSP like sardines.
The best thing any prison can do to limit the spread of COVID-19 is to put the facility on lockdown. During a lockdown, inmates are only let out of their cells a couple times a week to shower, are fed box meals through the food ports in their cells, and medication is personally delivered to their cells. That does not stop the virus from spreading via the staff and inmate workers. The same drug mules typically pass out medications to all housing units, so if one of them picks up the virus they will spread it around the entire prison. The same is true for correctional officers that move from unit to unit on a regular basis. Despite this remedy being available, it was not enough to stop the outbreak at OSP and now three more prisons are being sent to that place.
Lockdowns are hard on inmates because they spend all of their time living in a bathroom with another man. The mental toll on the weak minded can drive them insane. We are aware of at least one lockdown in the state of Oregon at the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan, Oregon (FCI Sheridan) which led to reports of inmates harming themselves (https://copblaster.com/blast/5432/fci-sheridan-on-lockdown-due-to-coronavirus). We cannot think of anything but a lockdown that might curtail the spread of the virus at OSP with 1,400 new guys crammed in there. This will almost certainly lead to mental breakdowns, self harm, assaults on cellmates, and suicide attempts.
Why are these prisons being merged? Because of wildfires in Marion County that threaten three prisons that have been evacuated. The DOC obviously believes that the only secure option is to cram them into other prisons. The DOC does not appear to consider other secure places. Places like the unused Wapato Jail in Portland, Oregon which has a capacity of 510 and could probably be modified to fit more (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wapato_Corrections_Facility). The DOC would just have to rent the place. Other types of facilities could quickly be modified into makeshift prisons. MCCF is a minimum security facility that does not even have a fence. It is a work camp and there is no need to cram those 300 inmates into a penitentiary. The DOC could easily setup tents in unused football stadiums and gyms to house those inmates. The same is true of inmates at SCI which is either a minimum or low security facility. For the medium security inmates at OSCI, the DOC could use a combination of Wapato and other secure locations to house those 880 inmates. The federal courthouse in downtown Portland has several cells and a secure fence around it. That fence was constructed in one day. The DOC could easily convert a government building into a makeshift prison and secure it with fencing quickly. There is no need to risk their lives by mixing them all together.
Governor Kate Brown declared a state of emergency and talks about it in the video below.