A federal magistrate judge this week found some Oregon prison staff at the Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla have not followed the prison’s own pandemic-related mask rules. In a court order signed Monday, the judge required prison officials to follow their policies.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie Beckerman largely ruled in favor of Aaron Hanna, a prisoner at Two Rivers. Hanna asked the court in October to force prison officials and correctional officers at Two Rivers to comply with the Oregon Department of Corrections policy on masks. Specifically, Hanna alleged prison leaders “acted with deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm in violation” of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment “by failing consistently to comply with and enforce ODOC’s mask policy.”
The ruling comes as Gov. Kate Brown lifted the statewide mask mandate for indoor public spaces beginning March 12, though masks requirements still apply to settings such as health care facilities.
Corrections officials also “acknowledge that a mask mandate continues to apply inside most areas of Oregon’s correctional institutions,” Beckerman wrote in her opinion.
The Department of Corrections declined to comment on the ruling. In early March, DOC deputy director Heidi Steward noted in an agency-wide email that masks were still required in all prisons. “Our goal is to move away from mask-wearing in our institutions as well, but our plan must be approved first, and it will be a phased-out approach,” Steward wrote.
In her ruling, Beckerman requires corrections leaders and officials at Two Rivers to comply with their own mask policy, saying it’s in the public’s interest.
The Department of Corrections argues “that although their masking compliance may be imperfect, they have acted reasonably under the circumstances,” Beckerman wrote. “Defendants set the bar too low.”
Hanna largely represented himself from his initial filing last fall until a hearing on March 9, when attorney Juan Chavez helped him argue the case before Beckerman.
“Mr. Hanna filed for this injunction back in October of 2021 asking ODOC to just comply with the same mask order that he follows,” Chavez said in a written statement after Monday’s ruling. “While waiting for this order, he caught COVID in January 2022. He and so many other prisoners have had to sit and wait for ODOC to do the right thing. It’s clear and unfortunate that the federal government is the only actor to provide any oversight of the agency.”
Beckerman also cited examples from other cases where DOC officials described poor or improper masking at state prisons.
Brad Cain, the former superintendent at the Snake River Correctional Institution, was deposed by Chavez on Dec. 22, 2020 as part of a separate case.
“Were you told why some staff members didn’t want to wear a mask?” Chavez asked.
“I’ve heard people’s opinions on it,” Cain replied. “Some people didn’t believe in it. They just didn’t believe in it. They felt as if it was against their rights. I had a staff member tell me it was against his religious beliefs. I’ve had staff tell me that it’s all political and [COVID-19 is] not real.”
During the course of the case, the Oregon Department of Justice revealed that around one-third of the employees at the Two Rivers prison had received medical or religious exemptions from the vaccine mandate. Beckerman noted that employees who have vaccine exemptions must wear N95 masks at work, but the prison’s COVID compliance officer admitted he doesn’t know who those employees are, making it “impossible for him to monitor masking compliance in any meaningful way.”
Beckerman denied Hanna’s request to apply her order across all of Oregon’s prisons.
This story was originally published by Oregon Public Broadcasting.