State officials say worker Covid testing could foment unrest at Ontario prison

ONTARIO – State prison officials say they have no plans for widespread testing of employees at Snake River Correctional Institution, saying that that could lead to a “powder keg” at Oregon’s largest prison.

In a court filing last week, state officials said testing of workers wouldn’t slow the coronavirus but the resulting disruptions could trigger anger among inmates.

The Oregon Department of Corrections also said it has stepped up its enforcement of mask mandates at the Ontario prison for both employees and inmates. The state said that through late April, 10 employees received verbal counseling over mask issues while 86 inmates received “conduct orders” for violations.

The state described its actions in a report submitted to Malheur County Circuit Court, addressing a state’s judges order last month that found the Ontario prison was creating an “unjustifiable risk” to inmate health in its handling of mask requirements.

The state agency was required in the order to document how it was enforcing the mask rules and show its “consideration of a plan to engage in mass COVID-19 testing at SRCI, particularly rapid testing of staff prior to entry.”

The order was the most sweeping criticism of the state prison agency in lawsuits pending across the state relating to the Corrections Department’s efforts to contain Covid within the prison system.

The latest report showed a virtual halt to new infections at the prison.

Snake River has administered coronavirus vaccine to seven out of 10 inmates – about 2,000 – with plans to use the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine going forward.

Prison officials said they were encouraging but not requiring the prison’s 800 employees and its outside contractors to get vaccinated.

The state pushed back hard on the idea that testing employees as they arrived for work was necessary.

“A small cadre of scientists have repeatedly claimed that we can test our way out of this pandemic through widespread, frequent and inexpensive screening of the entire population,” the state said in its filing. “This simplistic argument obscures important considerations in health policy, including test accuracy, testing acceptance, and testing access in a nation without universal health care.”

The agency said that health officials instead advised that “vaccination coupled with continued masking discipline and physical distancing are the most powerful tools available.”

The agency said no inmate is “forcibly submitted to COVID-19 testing or vaccination.”

The report said testing employees as they came to work would take time, with about 125 people arriving for each of three shifts.

“Any significant interruption to the timely relief of on-duty security staff will require SRCI to go into lockdown and switch to emergency staffing standards,” the Corrections Department said.

Such restrictions “could strike a powder keg among an AIC population that has been on severe Covid restrictions for over eight months” and could potentially ‘trigger a violent disturbance” at the prison, the agency’s filing said.

Jamie Miller, Snake River assistant superintendent, said in a declaration that with reduced cases of Covid, the prison has relaxed some restrictions, allowing those in custody more mobility, such as yard time. They are required to wear masks when they are not in their cells, and they are sharing “frustration and anger with enhanced enforcement of masking compliance,” Miller said.

Superintendent Brad Cain on March 29 ordered that anyone entering the prison had to wear a mask unless they worked in a private office or were eating or drinking 6 feet away from others.

Executives at the prison have stepped up unannounced inspections around the Ontario facility. They also have planned to pull a one-hour security video from random locations to review for mask violations that need action, according to the state filing.

Contact editor Les Zaitz by email at [email protected].


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