Evacuation, COVID-19 distress Coffee Creek adults in custody
Late summer and early fall was a stressful time for adults in custody (AIC) at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility.
The AICs had to be evacuated from the Wilsonville prison in mid-September to Deer Ridge Correctional Institute in Madras due to the threat of regional wildfires. Around the same time, the first case of COVID-19 was reported among the Coffee Creek population, and more cases have been tallied since then.
"It's very uncomfortable. You never know from day-to-day what's going on. I can't leave my cell because I don't want to get sick and don't know if I could get sick because they have no answers for us," one AIC said.
Two AICs, to whom Pamplin Media Group granted anonymity for fear of retribution, provided accounts of what they experienced at the prison in September.
One AIC said people were locked in their cells for many hours while smoke wafted strongly in the facility the day of the evacuation, Sept. 10.
"It was so bad. I have chronic migraines. I've never had them the way I was getting them because of all the smoke in the facility. It was making people dizzy," the AIC said.
Then, on the bus ride to Deer Ridge, some AICs urinated on themselves because they weren't allowed to get off, she said. Meanwhile, she said AICs weren't fed consistently, or given cleaning supplies to clean their cells — which she said were full of garbage. Staff also did not give the AICs their medication consistently, she said. The AIC said one of her meals included green and rotten eggs. She also said it was very smoky at Deer Ridge.
"We started protesting and demanding they feed us and give the others their medications on time when they are supposed to take them, not whenever staff gets around to it, and for towels [and] cups and to be treated with a little bit of decency and respect," the woman wrote in a letter. DOC spokeswoman Sharon Ball previously told Pamplin Media Group that the cells were cleaned prior to the arrival of Coffee Creek AICs and that the trip took three hours. She acknowledged that an inmate urinated on themself and stated that inmates ate three meals a day during their stay, though there had been a meal delay early on.
One of the AICs said she had a broken femur and needed medication to treat that.
"Over the next four days the medication line was very erratic and we were given very little food. The showers were not cleaned and we were exposed to the guards and (the) whole day room (where AICs congregate)," the AIC wrote in a letter.
The first report of COVID-19 occurred within the Coffee Creek population Sept. 15, according to the Oregon Health Authority website. News reports stating that AICs had returned were published Friday, Sept. 18, and both AICs who communicated with Pamplin Media said they were told the reason for the return to Coffee Creek was prompted by the revelation that an AIC had contracted COVID-19. However, CCCF Public Information Officer Mackenzie Kath said that was not the case.
"We moved back because the threat of the fire was no longer a reality for us so we could bring people back to our own facility," Kath said, adding that there was no way of knowing exactly how the disease entered the facility.
The first COVID-19 case originated from an AIC who was tested because they were slated to be released from the prison, Kath said. After the confirmed case, Kath said they contact-traced and tested hundreds of AICs.
"Anyone who ever wants a test, all they have to do is ask and they will receive one," Kath said.
She added: "Way back in March we started our planning for if the COVID came in, what we would do. We had established areas where people who are positive are housing until they go through the 14 days and are no longer symptomatic."
There were seven cases in the minimum-security facility and one in the medium-security prison as of early October. The minimum- and medium-security facilities were on Tier 4 of lockdown, meaning inmates couldn't interact with anyone outside their own units, but those restrictions were reduced earlier this month and only a couple minimum-security units are still restricted. As of Wednesday, Oct. 21, there was just one active case listed at Coffee Creek and over 1,200 negative test results. There have been over 1,200 reported cases across state prisons, with 125 active cases as of Oct. 21.
One AIC was worried because she said the inmate who tested positive had worked in the kitchen at Deer Ridge and Coffee Creek, and she was afraid to eat anything from the kitchen for fear of getting sick. It's also not possible for AICs to keep a distance from their cellmates, she pointed out.
"My neighbor was complaining for days that she isn't feeling well. She's been allowed to come out and be around us. They just now shut her door and isolated her and told her she can't come out when she's been around us for days," the AIC said.
According to one of the AICs, the communication from prison officials has been inconsistent and confusing.
"They tell us no one tested positive but we're still on quarantine. They tell us there are no positive cases but they're treating us as if there are," she said.
Kath said AICs can participate in regular town hall meetings and updated COVID-19 numbers are provided regularly.
"They can ask questions and hear straight from the administration what's going on. It's been a really good communication tool," she said.
Meanwhile, the AIC said that correctional officers at the prison aren't always wearing their masks and that AICs don't keep their distance from each other when they are allowed to congregate in larger groups, in part because correctional officers don't force them to do so.
"They posted a flyer saying, 'Hey, the officers aren't doing their job so as AICs you need to lead by example to make sure you're wearing your masks because the officers are not,' which is out of control,'" the AIC said.
Kath said she was not aware of the flyer the AIC was referring to but noted that AICs are given masks, correctional officers are required to wear masks and the facility uses waxy products to sanitize the facilities.
"A mask is a part of their (officers') uniform. It's the same as wearing a pair of pants," she said.
She also said officers enforce social distancing but that AICs are allowed to be within six feet of each other as long as they are wearing a mask. Only a certain number of AICs can congregate together at a time.
"We want people to be able to play cards together and things like that," Kath said.
Living in prison hasn't been easy for one AIC, but the pandemic has made things worse.
"I'm already nerve-wrecked and anxious as is," she said. "I shouldn't have to live in fear for my safety."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.