Guards at an Oregon state prison are under fire for repeatedly deploying pepper spray in a facility where evacuated prisoners were already suffering amid historic wildfires and the worst air quality in the world.
Oregon last week evacuated four state prisons because of encroaching wildfires, forcing thousands of prisoners into one facility that had reported more than 100 cases of Covid-19. Prisoners at the Oregon state penitentiary (OSP) in Salem told the Guardian that in the days since, violence and conflicts between prisoners have escalated, with authorities responding with a chemical spray that has exacerbated people’s respiratory problems and Covid risks.
Prisoners said there was coughing across the institution due to smoke and soot, poor air quality and the deployment of “OC spray”, a law enforcement chemical used for riot control. Prisoners said they have had difficulties getting medical attention and that it was difficult to escape the toxic conditions. An OSP spokesperson said guards deployed pepper spray “to gain compliance”.
“These officers just pull out their cans of OC spray and start spraying everywhere,” said Bryan MacDonald, 39, who was evacuated from Oregon State Correctional Institution (OSCI) prison in the fire zone last week and placed at OSP four miles away. MacDonald said several fights among prisoners have broken out: “At two different points, I couldn’t breathe … When I got sprayed, I had to stick my face into a sink to rinse it off.”
Advocates warn that at OSP, the ongoing coughing and continued use of pepper spray could increase risks of Covid-19 spreading, which was already a major concern due the mixing of four prison populations.
Last Monday, the Oregon corrections department evacuated 1,450 people to OSP, which had more than 2,000 prisoners before the evacuations and has reported at least 143 Covid infections. Evacuees were sleeping on floors in makeshift quarters, and prisoners reported long waits for food, unsanitary conditions and no social distancing.
When authorities brought OSCI residents to OSP, prisoners and their advocates warned that conflicts would arise between the two populations due to various gang affiliations, differing security levels and racial tensions. It didn’t take long for fights and assaults to break out in out in dining areas and elsewhere, prisoners said.
“I was scared. I didn’t think they were going to put us in that kind of situation, because the [department of corrections] is supposed to protect us,” said Parker Vanek, 23, who was also evacuated from OSCI to OSP. “The pepper spray got on everyone. Everyone was coughing and sneezing. There was just so much in the air.”
A department spokeswoman, Vanessa Vanderzee, said OSP had “several altercations” last week when prisoners “from different facilities had to share the same area”. OSP has since worked to identify “potential conflicts” and separate people, she said on Monday, adding that altercations stopped in the last two days.
Vanderzee said there were “no reported medical complications from exposure” to pepper spray and that all impacted prisoners were offered a shower and clean clothing and were observed for 30 minutes after exposure.
Several prisoners affected by pepper spray, however, disputed her statement, saying they were forced to wear the same clothes for a week and had no access to showers for days.
MacDonald said the facility does not have a modern air circulation system and was keeping windows open: “We have smoke on the inside from the fire.” He said some people were skipping meals because they were too afraid of breathing in the pepper spray.
In 2018, a dozen Oregon prisoners sued the state alleging that the prisons denied medical treatment after deploying pepper spray and saying the chemical made people feel like they were choking and burning.
Lynn James-Jackson said her husband, Tacuma Jackson, who is incarcerated at OSP and suffers from Crohn’s disease and heart problems, was experiencing severe chest and throat pains and that after his conditions worsened due to pepper spray, he was placed outside on the yard to escape the chemicals. That only further exposed him to the bad air, she said.
“My eyes and lungs are still burning and soot is still floating all inside the prison,” he wrote in one message to her, shared with the Guardian, adding that his vision was impacted. “I am wearing a mask but it isn’t built for smoke … My anxiety is in full gear. God help us all.”
James-Jackson said she was worried her husband wouldn’t survive: “I feel like there’s nothing I can do.”
Oregon state Representative Janelle Bynum met with prison officials to discuss OSP, and in a summary to other lawmakers wrote there were “constant fights because of the cramped and stressful living conditions”, adding, “People [are] fearful that there will be a riot and they will be shot from the armed guards in the towers.”
Tara Herivel, an attorney who has fought for Oregon prisoners’ releases during Covid, said the mixing of populations could lead to a “superspreader” event.
“We’re almost guaranteeing that we’re bringing Covid-19 back to our prison,” added MacDonald, whose prison did not have a major outbreak. He said the state should at least release residents of OSCI who are nearing the end of their sentences.
Six prisoners have died of Covid in Oregon so far. In California, where 59 prisoners have died from the virus, the biggest outbreak behind bars was a result of mass transfers between prisons similar to the Oregon moves this week.
Oregon’s governor, Kate Brown, has declined to approve mass releases due to Covid or fires and said last week she would continue making “case by case” decisions.
John Persinger, a 44-year-old evacuee at OSP, said he was concerned about elderly and at-risk prisoners suffering through the smoke and pepper spray. “It’s a state of emergency. At what point does the governor say, ‘You know what? I need to do something.’”
“I’m in prison being held accountable for my behaviors,” he added. “There has to be accountability for the conditions here.”