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

UPDATE: This story was updated Wednesday afternoon with a quote from Colette Peters.

Inmates at Ontario’s state prison will get in line for Covid vaccinations at the same time as teachers under a federal court order issued Tuesday by U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie Beckerman.

Beckerman found that state prison officials had acted with “deliberate indifference” in deciding not to promptly vaccinate all inmates and ordered they be moved up in the state’s order of distribution for what is currently a limited supply of vaccine. Nearly 3,000 inmates are at Snake River Correctional Institution, the state’s largest prison.

The court ordered Oregon to begin offering Covid vaccines to the state’s 12,073 inmates after it found that withholding them constituted a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment. 

“This decision by the court will serve to protect thousands of Oregonians in prison and will come as a great relief to them and their loved ones,” Alice Lundell, director of communications for the Oregon Justice Resource Center and Oregon Innocence Project, said in a statement. “While many groups are rightfully anxious to receive the vaccine as soon as possible, it is undeniable that people in custody are at particular risk, as tragically proven by the thousands of cases and 42 deaths from COVID-19 in our prisons. A single day of Oregon's vaccine supply will be enough to protect everyone in custody.”

Beckerman said in her order that state officials were aware that Covid was “a persistent and dangerous risk” to inmates.

“Non-compliance with masking requirements remains an ongoing problem at ODOC facilities,” the order said. Prison officials “have demonstrated deliberate indifference to the serious risk of harm” faced by inmates.

The order said state prison officials acknowledged “that current measures are inadequate to stop the spread” of the virus among inmates, which the state agency refers to as adults in custody.

“ODOC administrators have determined that the only way to achieve proper social distancing in ODOC facilities would be to house all AICs in celled units,” the order found. “This would require an estimated fifty to sixty percent reduction in AIC population.”

"This pandemic has been exceedingly difficult for those who live and work in our institutions, and we will continue to work hard to combat this virus," said Colette Peters, director of the Oregon Department of Corrections. "Operationally, we are prepared to offer and administer additional vaccines. We know vaccines will slow the spread of COVID-19 inside Oregon’s institutions for those in our care and custody, and in turn, protect our employees and Oregon communities."

The order came after a handful of Oregon inmates sued state officials. Attorneys representing them argued that while both workers and residents of other congregate care settings were given priority by the state for initial vaccinations, only corrections employees were prioritized, with most inmates left to be vaccinated at an undetermined future date. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that inmates and prison workers be vaccinated at the same time, “because of their shared increased risk of disease.” Oregon’s decision to go against that recommendation formed the basis for the plaintiffs to claim that their Eighth Amendment “right to reasonable protection from severe illness or death” had been violated, and that “defendants’ failure to follow these guidelines...supports a finding of deliberate indifference to a serious risk of harm.”

So far, 224 staff and 481 inmates have tested positive for Covid at Snake River since the start of the pandemic. Eleven inmates have died, the highest number for any state prison in Oregon. Statewide, the known level of infection among inmates is 28%, as compared to 3.3% in the general population. 

Despite these high numbers, the process of vaccinating corrections staff has not gone according to the Department of Corrections’ expectations. Corrections staff were all offered the chance to be vaccinated on-site at the facilities where they work as part of Phase 1A. Initially, the agency expected a vaccination rate of 55%, but only 34% of corrections staff have been vaccinated, the court order said.

Inmates have demonstrated a higher willingness to get the vaccine. Recently, 1,558 inmates who were over 60 or had medical vulnerabilities were offered the vaccine as the result of a miscommunication, and 1,343 accepted, for a vaccination rate of 86%. 

The Ontario prison is on a Tier 4 lockdown until at least Feb. 6, indicating the highest risk of coronavirus spread. Under such a lockdown, the inmates’ activities and yard time are cut, and visitors and volunteers are excluded from the prison. 

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

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