Inmate transfers for wildfires causing overcrowding and delays in medication, meals, bathroom access, families say

The state mismanaged its evacuation of 3,439 inmates who were moved in the last week from four minimum- and medium-security prisons in the Willamette Valley to prisons in Salem and Madras due to wildfire smoke, their attorneys said Monday.

Inmates with different security levels were mixed, leading to a rash of fights, the lawyers said. Guards were unprepared and used pepper spray to respond to rioting, adding the toxic chemical to prisons already filled with smoke from nearby fires, they said.

Inmates also didn’t get their medication on time, they said, and no meals were served for nearly 24 hours for women prisoners transferred out of Coffee Creek Correctional Institution.

Some inmates were forced to sleep on the floor, with little social distancing and increased risk of the coronavirus, according to family members.

Women transported in the middle of the night from Coffee Creek Correctional Institution sat on buses for hours, forcing them to urinate in their pants without access to bathrooms.

“Women were peeing in cups and throwing tampons and feces out the buses,” said Rod Richardson, whose wife Tammy Saylor was among those moved from the women’s prison in Wilsonville to Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras. Once at Deer Ridge, she had to sleep on metal bed springs for hours before mattresses arrived, he said.

A group of attorneys representing inmates urged Gov. Kate Brown to release those who are medically vulnerable and are six months away from release.

“It appears as if there wasn’t a plan for this,” said attorney Tara Herivel, who described the Oregon Department of Corrections actions as extremely haphazard.

More than 180 habeas corpus court cases are pending across the state by inmates already arguing that the prison conditions are unsafe, increasing their risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Lawyers are expected to incorporate the latest prison evacuations and changes into those cases, pointing to the altered, deteriorating conditions as further examples of alleged “deliberate indifference” to inmates’ medical conditions and safety, Herivel said.

The Corrections Department “has not only abused and mistreated our clients and other Oregonians in prison, they have exposed them to a mass COVID contraction environment,” she wrote to state officials.

Jennifer Black, spokeswoman for the Corrections Department, said the agency recognizes that “life at some of our institutions is not ideal for those who live and work at them” because of the wildfire emergency.

“However, life and safety are our first priority and we will return to normal operations as soon as conditions allow.”

Inmates from the Oregon State Correctional Institution, the Santiam Correctional Institution and Mill Creek Correctional, which are all in Salem and sit closest to the mouth of the Santiam Canyon, were moved to the Oregon State Penitentiary, also in Salem, last week. The inmates from Mill Creek and Santiam are now back at those prisons, according to Black.

The Corrections Department has extensive emergency preparedness plans that cover evacuations, mainly for a potential Cascadia earthquake, Black said. The state faced “unique circumstances” it couldn’t

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