Class action lawsuit calls for vaccination of all Oregon inmates

More than 3,200 inmates have been infected with the corona virus.

PORTLAND, Ore. – Not a day goes by when Nellie Love doesn’t think about her fiancé, who is imprisoned at the Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla.

“If he’s sick, he’s worried,” said Love. “I’m worried. It’s scary.”

It’s scary because 38 inmates across the Oregon prison system have died after testing positive for COVID-19. The virus has infected more than 3,200 adults in custody. That means one in four people detained in Oregon has contracted COVID.

“That’s an amazing statistic,” said Juan Chavez.

Chavez is an attorney with the Oregon Justice Resource Center (OJRC), a nonprofit that deals with mass detention issues. The OJRC filed a class action lawsuit against Governor Kate Brown and executives in the Oregon Department of Corrections. The lawsuit calls for the immediate vaccination of all inmates.

“We have a duty to protect them now,” said Chavez. “This is the business we have chosen. If you don’t want to imprison people, don’t imprison people, but now that we have them we have to protect them.”

According to Chavez, and confirmed by the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC), more than 1,300 elderly and vulnerable inmates have been vaccinated. Chavez says that’s not good enough. He says the other 90% of the prison population now need the vaccine. Chavez fears more inmates will die.

“While outside we have a chance to stay away from each other and stay at home, people inside don’t have a chance to protect themselves,” Chavez said.

He said no matter what security measures ODOC takes in prisons, social distancing is next to impossible.

“We have heard from several people that even if asked to stay in your bunk, your unit is locked, sitting next to people who have tested positive for the disease,” Chavez said.

Love heard similar stories from her fiancé. She can’t help but worry that he’ll get sick next or, worse, die if the situation doesn’t improve.

“Maybe they pray that they can do something about it,” she said. “It’s scary for those of us who have loved behind bars.”

KGW reached out to Governor Brown’s office to comment on the lawsuit. A spokesman says he cannot comment on any pending litigation. However, the spokesman says the inmates who have not yet been vaccinated will be included in Phase 1b of the vaccine rollout. Most likely that’s months away.

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