Judge blasts Oregon prisons doctor; says must follow CDC rules
A Marion County judge this week blasted the doctor in charge of health care at Oregon's prisons, approving a settlement that essentially requires the state to follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines.
The decision comes as dozens of lawyers around Oreggon have been waging a campaign to secure early release for clients who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. In filings around Oregon they've argued Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Department of Corrections are not ensuring safety or releasing vulnerable inmates as they should in light of the disease's rapid spread in Oregon's prisons.
More than 12,600 people are incarcerated in the state's facilities.
"We are disappointed with and disagree with Judge Burton's ruling," said Jennifer Black, a communications manager for the department, adding that she could not comment further on the pending case.
The Jan. 27 ruling, issued by Circuit Judge Claudia M. Burton, found that Dr. Warren Roberts, the Chief Medical Officer for the Oregon Department of Corrections, was evasive and unconvincing while defending the treatment of Richard F. Weaver, Jr., an inmate at the Oregon State Correctional Institute in Salem.
In a judgment settling the case, Burton also recognized a process under Multnomah Circuit Judge Benjamin Souede to oversee negotiated resolutions to Weaver's case and others like it.
The state's lawyers consented to a set of measures including more testing for inmates, strengthened vaccination assurances and an agreement to improve handwashing, sanitation, physical distancing and enforcement of mask requirements.
"I talked to my client today and read it him, and he just cried," said Portland defense lawyer Tara Herivel, who has been coordinating the effort by about 30 attorneys to research prison conditions and file petitions to shorten clients' sentences.
Burton's ruling focused on Roberts in particular, saying his credibility in defending the corrections department's care was lacking.
"Dr. Roberts' technical competence as a physician is at least questionable," Burton wrote. "At best, he had a poor understanding of his obligations under the corrective action agreement and the requirements to maintain his board certification. At worst, he was intentionally dishonest with regard to these matters. I agree with plaintiff that Dr. Roberts is an unreliable witness who lacks credibility."
In 2011, Weaver was sentenced to 25 years in prison after pleading guilty to attempted murder and two counts of robbery for attacking a tool shop owner in Salem with a claw hammer.
His sentence calls for him to be released no sooner than 2035.
In prison, however, the treatment Weaver received for his asthma, chronic bronchitis and an injured left wrist at times amounted to "deliberate indifference," Burton wrote.
For instance, the judge cited the department's restrictions on supplying Weaver with new inhalers, even after he contracted COVID-19.
"For 22 days in the fall of 2020 he did not have access to an inhaler at all, even when he was suffering from COVID-19. The lack of adequate access to an inhaler is a risk to plaintiff's life," the judge wrote, adding that the state corrections department "offered no evidence, either in terms of cost or risk of any adverse consequences, of any rational reason to restrict plaintiff's access to an inhaler to such a degree."
Similarly, regarding Weaver's injured wrist and pain problems, the state "has repeatedly been put on notice of the issues and failed to meet the standard of care," Burton wrote.
The judge noted that Roberts has been the subject of a number of disciplinary or legal sanctions, including a $4 million malpractice verdict against him in 2017 and actions by the Oregon and Colorado medical boards accusing him of substandard care.
Black, the corrections spokeswoman, defended Roberts as an "exceptional physician," adding that "We firmly believe that the Department of Corrections provides high-quality health care and services to the approximately 13,000 people in our care and custody, even during the difficult challenges presented by the global COVID-19 pandemic."
She said Brown has issued commutations or sentence relief to more than 240 vulnerable inmates and approved commutations for more than 140 others.
Herivel said the problem goes beyond one doctor, adding that negligent practices are driving the disease's spread in the state's facilities. She said more inmates should be released.
"They're not separating people who are positive and negative," she said. "They are not telling people that they have tested positive for a really long time, if ever, and then they send them back to units."
To date, 43 Oregon inmates have died in state facilities in connection with COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to the state. So far, more than 1,300 medically vulnerable prisoners have been vaccinated.
Herivel said she is pleased by the victory, but is concerned that the disease continues to spread inside facilities.
"I think we're making some impact," she said, but for some, "it's coming too late."
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