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Judge orders Oregon to offer prison inmates COVID-19 vaccines immediately

Special housing cells at an Oregon Department of Corrections prison.
Special housing cells at an Oregon Department of Corrections prison.

A federal judge ordered Oregon officials late Tuesday to immediately offer state prison inmates COVID-19 vaccines.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie Beckerman granted a temporary restraining order as part of a larger case by a group of prison inmates. They’ve criticized the state’s response to the pandemic inside prisons and argue it’s violated the U.S. Constitution.

Beckerman’s ruling applies to more than 12,000 inmates who live in one of the state’s 14 prisons.

“Defendants shall offer all [Adults in Custody] housed in [Oregon Department of Corrections] facilities, who have not been offered a COVID-19 vaccine, a COVID-19 vaccine,” she wrote.

Oregon Department of Corrections director Colette Peters acknowledged the pandemic has been “exceedingly difficult” for the state’s prison system.

“Operationally, we are prepared to offer and administer additional vaccines,” she said in a statement. “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.”

Gov. Kate Brown was also named in the lawsuit. Brown’s communications director, Charles Boyle, confirmed Wednesday that the state won’t appeal the decision.

“The court’s decision is clear,” Boyle said in a written statement. “We will move ahead with a weekly approach that will integrate adults in custody into our Phase 1a distribution plans.”

Boyle said adding inmates to Phase 1a was not anticipated to change when educators and seniors receive vaccinations.

“However, that is dependent on the weekly vaccine supplies we receive from the federal government,” he said.

Beckerman’s order comes as the Oregon Department of Corrections has struggled to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 3,000 inmates have tested positive for the virus. Of those, 42 people in custody have died; including 20 in January alone.

“From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was clear that our country’s prisons were uniquely vulnerable to the transmission and spread of the virus,” Beckerman wrote in her 34-page order. “Oregon prisons have not been spared from this reality, as COVID-19′s toll continues to mount behind bars.”

Earlier Tuesday, Beckerman heard arguments from the Oregon Department of Justice, which is representing the governor and prison officials named in the lawsuit. Beckerman also heard from civil rights attorneys representing the inmates who argued inmates live in congregate living situations where the virus spreads more easily and social distancing is far more difficult.

Currently, the state is offering vaccines to high-risk groups that live in congregate care settings. But until now, it has not included inmates.

“I didn’t understand how our adults in custody were different from any other group in a congregate care setting,” said Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee and supports the ruling. “I certainly don’t believe a prison sentence is a death sentence.”

Juan Chavez, one of the civil rights attorneys representing the inmates, said this ruling fixes an error that never should have happened.

“This is a potentially life-saving decision,” Chavez said. “It put them at the same priority of people who live in congregate care facilities, like the Oregon State Hospital, nursing homes, assisted living facilities.”

Last month, the Oregon Department of Corrections gave the first dose of the vaccine to more than 1,300 inmates, though the agency said it was because of a miscommunication with state health officials over the vaccination priority for some inmates. Officials said it was not an official policy.

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he believes the state is trying to get the vaccinations done in the next 30 days.

“Everything is in the works,” he said. “I am confident that they are taking this extremely seriously and they’re going to implement it as quickly as they can.”

Beckerman’s ruling coincided with an announcement Tuesday from Multnomah County in response to COVID-19 concerns at the Inverness jail, where officials were dealing with an outbreak that affected dozens of people, though had not resulted in any coronavirus-related deaths. County communications director Julie Sullivan-Springhetti said that people held at Inverness have begun receiving vaccinations.

“As part of the congregate setting list the County has been working (group homes, behavioral health homes, etc.), we began offering vaccines at Inverness today. About 108 adults in large open dorms who have not been exposed to COVID were vaccinated,” Sullivan-Springhetti said in an email to OPB.

Multnomah County officials said 107 adults in custody have confirmed COVID-19, according to their latest count.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting