State judge rules that SRCI must enforce mask mandate, consider rapid tests for employees

Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario. (Kezia Setyawan/The Enterprise)

ONTARIO – A state judge last week ordered officials at Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario to devise a plan to enforce mask use at the prison and to deploy mass testing after finding that the state’s treatment of two inmates reflected indifference during the Covid pandemic.

Multnomah Circuit Court Judge Amy Baggio issued her findings and orders after two inmates sued prison officials in Malheur County Circuit Court. Local state judges recused themselves from the case.

“Certain SRCI staff view mask wearing as an issue of politics rather than one related to health and welfare during a pandemic,” Baggio concluded. “Mask failures by staff are particularly troubling considering the very nature of their jobs: to oversee a large, congregate environment.”

Her findings came in civil cases filed by inmates Mark Lawson and Don Skelton, who claimed they received poor medical care that put their lives at risk. They claimed the care was so bad that it violated their constitutional rights.

READ THE DOC: Judge’s order Lawson vs. Cain 

READ THE DOC: Judge’s order – Skelton vs. Cain 

Baggio ordered the Oregon Department of Corrections to provide her “documentation as to how SRCI is enforcing the masking policy, including proof of specific enforcement” and “consideration of a plan to engage in mass COVID-19 testing at SRCI, particularly rapid testing of staff prior to entry.”

While she set no deadline, Baggio said she would conduct a status check in 30 days.

Court filings and the judge’s orders paint a picture of a prison where, despite heightened precautions such as locking down inmates and eliminating most programming, the danger of Covid is taken lightly by some staff and inmates.

Dr. Garth Gulick, chief medical officer for SRCI, “testified that he is at war with COVID-19 misinformation in SRCI,” the court order said.  “He described how staff are on the whole very conservative and have doubts about the virus and the vaccine.”

Referring to inmates as adults in custody, the order said that Gulick testified that “misinformation is totally engrained in staff and some of the AICs. He testified that many staff believe that masking is stupid and that the virus is harmless.”

Jason Bell, assistant superintendent at Snake River, said “that staff at SRCI mostly live in Idaho where masks are not required. He explained that it is difficult for staff to understand why masks are required in one state and not the other. He stated that very few people wear masks in Idaho,” the judge’s order said.

Unannounced Covid safety assessments conducted in February 2021 and documented in the ruling found that neither staff nor inmates were reliably wearing their face masks correctly, including indoors, where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that the danger of airborne virus transmission is greater.

“Some staff remark to AICs that they already had Covid,” read one of the reports. “Observed AICs and staff pull down masks to talk.”

Bell testified that inmates can be disciplined for mask noncompliance, but recognized that enforcement was inconsistent. He said enforcing mask orders also “raised a security issue because SRCI did not want to risk the AICs organizing and resisting SRCI officials.”

He also said inmates feared reporting employees who weren’t wearing masks.

“He further testified that there is potential for retaliation by staff in positions of power over AICs. Dr. Gulick repeated this observation,” the judge’s ruling said. 

Bell testified about a six-step process to discipline employees, ranging from a private conversation to a predismissal hearing, the ruling said. Bell testified that only one staff member had progressed in discipline to the sixth step for mask violations.

While Gulick had asserted in testimony that “he considered testing ‘harmful’ and stated that it ‘can be the enemy,’” Baggio found that there was no law preventing SRCI from conducting mass testing of its inmates and employees. She pointed out that even without mass testing, the institution had been on Tier 4 status, the highest level of Covid alert within the Oregon prison system, since July 2020. 

“The current plan has proven ineffective,” she wrote. “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is unreasonable, irrational and unjustifiable.”

In separate cases, Baggio found that SRCI officials had been “deliberately indifferent” to treating Lawson’s COPD, as well as treating Skelton’s asthma and hypertension, violating their Eighth Amendment rights to protection against cruel and unusual punishment. 

Baggio also ruled that the prison’s management of mask orders “creates an unjustifiable risk.”

She said that “SRCI cannot throw up its hands in the face of chronic mask noncompliance and simultaneously fail to explore other options such as rapid testing of staff before entry.”

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577. 


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