Oregon PSR Prisoner Release Request to Governor Brown

Read Oregon PSR’s letter to Governor Brown detailing our concerns and about incarcerated Oregonians during the Covid-19 pandemic.

To the Honorable Governor Brown,

Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility applauds your efforts to keep Oregonians safe and prevent the spread of coronavirus to limit the devastating impact of this pandemic on the health of the public. So far your leadership has helped put Oregon ahead of the curve. Yet we know that the pandemic is not over and knowledgeable experts predict that there will be a resurgence in the fall.

It is urgent that you act now to prevent a public health disaster in Oregon prisons, jails, and juvenile correction facilities. The detainees, the staff, those who supply services and deliveries, and all of their families are at risk. This is not only a humanitarian and public health issue but an issue of social and racial justice.

Dr. Josiah Rich, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Brown University, is co-author of an essay published on April 2, 2020, in the New England Journal of medicine urging immediate action to mitigate mass outbreaks of COVID-19 behind bars. Among the authors’ recommendations is the immediate release of prisoners who are unlikely to commit further crimes, as well as those who are elderly or ill. He notes that this would free up precious space to enable facilities to better manage the remaining population in the event of an outbreak. Taking no action will not only endanger thousands of lives among incarcerated populations but poses a dire threat to everyone by further overtaxing health care systems. “When these people get sick, they’re going to get sick all at once,” states Rich. Prisons and jails are truly a tinderbox situation.

Ohio is a case in point, demonstrating how contagious and stealthy this virus is. Ohio is one of the few states that has done mass testing in prisons. At the Marion Correctional Facility in Marion, Ohio, mass testing showed that 2000 of 2500 prisoners tested positive for the virus. Many of the individuals who tested positive were asymptomatic. Overall, in Ohio, 3743 inmates have tested positive and 34 of those have died as of 5/2/2020.

There are more than 14,000 Oregonians in our state prisons and many more in our local jails. The prisons and jails are overcrowded, communal unhygienic living situations, where social distancing of 6 feet is impossible. Beds in a cell are only 3 feet apart. Bathrooms are shared; day rooms and dining areas are crowded. Prisoners do not have easy access to soap and cleaning supplies and are not provided with PPE. Staff is at risk and so are the numerous persons who come and go from the prisons and jails every day, delivering food and other supplies. Staff and others who interface with prisons and jails go home to their families and communities. This environment is a set up for disaster. A single person with the virus can ignite a wildfire of spread.

Those incarcerated are not only at risk because of overcrowding and unhygienic conditions but because of their age and health status, making the risk both severe and deadly. The ACLU notes that the Oregon Department of Corrections has identified at least 1,400 adults in their custody who are over 60 years old, are immunocompromised or have comorbid medical conditions. In addition, there are significant racial disparities. African-Americans make up 2% of Oregon'sstate population and 10% of Oregon's prison/jail population; Latinx make-up 12% of the population and 16% of Oregon’s prison/jail population; American Indians / Native Americans are 1% of the Oregon state population and make-up 3% of Oregon's prison/jail population. People of color are more likely to have poor health status and, therefore, are at greater risk for death from COVID-19. Those who are incarcerated have a high incidence of mental health disorders. The COVID-19 pandemic adds further stress and anxiety.

From a public health, humanitarian, and social justice viewpoint, we support ACLU Oregon in partnership with Disability Rights Oregon, Partnership for Safety & Justice, the Oregon Justice Resource Center, the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Associations, and sponsors, Inc. in strongly advocating for you to release as many currently incarcerated people as possible back into the community with proper supports to remain healthy (especially members of medically vulnerable groups) and prevent entry and divert individuals from custody in correctional facilities and jails). This will result in significant harm reduction not only for the prisoners but also for their families who are worried about their loved ones living in such a dangerous situation. It will also prevent an outbreak in a prison or jail from overwhelming our limited medical resources. As governor, you have the power of the Oregon constitution and statutes to take these actions and direct the Department of Corrections, Board of Parole and County Sheriffs to take action. A person’s prison or jail sentence should not be a death sentence.

On behalf of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, we urge you to use your authority as governor and act now to prevent this tinderbox scenario from occurring in our prisons and jails.