For prisoners in the west, the virus and the wildfires are colliding threats
By Tim Arango and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs
As wildfires tore through huge swaths of Oregon last week, prisoners were hurried away from the encroaching flames — not to freedom but to an overcrowded state prison, where they slept shoulder-to-shoulder in cots and, in some cases, on the floor. Food was in short supply, showers and toilets few, and fights broke out between rival gang members.
They were safe from one catastrophe but delivered to another: the coronavirus pandemic, which has spread at an alarming rate in America’s prisons.
“From what we know about COVID-19, how quickly it can spread and how lethal it can be, we have to prepare for the worst,” said Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, a prisoner advocacy organization.
Twin crises of the pandemic and a devastating wildfire season have left a significant toll in prisons along the West Coast. Virus outbreaks have spread through cellblocks — Oregon’s state prison system has had 1,600 infections over the past three months — even as poor ventilation systems have whipped in smoke from the fires outside.
The quandary for prison officials, too, is complex, as they grapple with managing large facilities through simultaneous dangers. Before the fires started, the virus spread in America’s prisons partly because routine transfers of prisoners proceeded without testing them first for the coronavirus and isolating those infected. Now fires have forced Oregon officials to move so many prisoners so quickly that some inmates and advocates for prisoners say they fear it is only a matter of time before transferred inmates begin falling sick with the virus.
“Right now, it’s this situation of, no matter which way you turn, there’s something waiting,” said Rasheed Stanley-Lockhart, who was released from prison in California in January after serving 18 years for armed robbery and now works for Planting Justice, a nonprofit in Oakland, California, that helps newly released prisoners. “Turn here, there’s COVID. Turn here, there’s the fires. You turn here, there’s mass incarceration as a whole.”
There have been more than 200,000 coronavirus infections in American prisons and jails and nearly 1,200 deaths since the pandemic began. As the wildfires have raged, the problems have been especially acute in Oregon, where officials ordered evacuations of about 2,750 prisoners.
Kristina Boswell, a prisoner in Oregon who was moved overnight Friday from a state prison in the fire zone to one away from the threat of fires, described a chaotic evacuation in an audio recording her lawyer shared with The Times. She said prisoners were bound together with zip ties and loaded into buses in the middle of the night, without their medications or water. When they arrived at the new prison, she said, there was a shortage of mattresses and no chance of social distancing.
“We’re all in dorm settings,” said Boswell, who was among more than 1,300 female prisoners moved to Deer Ridge Correctional Facility in Madras, Oregon. “Everyone is crammed in.”
Boswell said prisoners were watching newscasts of the fires and worried about their families outside. She said prisoners had gone almost 24 hours without food.
“I hate not knowing what’s going to happen,” she said. “I’m worried about my family out there.”
Her lawyer, Tara Herivel, a public defender in Portland, said of the wildfire evacuations: “It’s like COVID doesn’t even exist.”
Jennifer Black, a spokeswoman for Oregon’s Department of Corrections, said that the fires had created a highly difficult situation for everyone in the state. “Our daily operations have been affected, and life at some of our institutions is not ideal for those who live and work at them,” she said, “However, life and safety are our first priority, and we will return to normal operations as soon as conditions allow.”
In California, thousands of dry-lightning strikes set off ferocious wildfires in Northern California in August. As thousands of people evacuated homes in the city of Vacaville, and volunteers rescued animals from the encroaching flames, thousands of people incarcerated in two prisons, some suffering from the coronavirus, were not moved. Even the animal shelter just up the road from the prison complex was emptied.
The fire ultimately did not reach the prisons — known as the California State Prison Solano and the California Medical Facility — but prisoners and their families grew increasingly anxious as the flames crept closer.
A spokesman for the California’s corrections agency said that no prisons are currently threatened by wildfires and that there are “long-standing evacuation contingency plans in place in the event a prison needs to be evacuated.” When the fires were burning near the prisons in Vacaville, the spokesman said, prisoners were given N95 masks.
Families of prisoners worry that so many people in close quarters could lead to a large virus outbreak, especially because similar prison transfers elsewhere in the country in recent months have turned deadly because of the virus. None of the prisoners who were transferred in Oregon have been tested for the virus, according to the Oregon Department of Corrections, which acknowledged overcrowding at the Oregon State Penitentiary, where prisoners from three facilities have been taken in recent days as the fires intensified.
At San Quentin State Prison in California, 26 inmates have died of the virus and more than 2,500 prisoners and staff have been sickened since infected prisoners from a Southern California prison were transferred to San Quentin in May without being tested.
And at an immigration detention center in Farmville, Virginia, a botched inmate transfer in June led to the death of one detainee and the infection of at least 339 others — nearly every single person housed at the facility, according to court documents and federal data.
Adnan Khan, who was previously incarcerated in California and now runs Re: Store Justice, a criminal justice reform organization, spent three years at the prison in Solano. As the fires were bearing down in the area last month, he said, he spoke with a friend at the prison over the phone.
“I got a call and honestly, man, I could literally hear people coughing in the background,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Is that COVID? What’s going on?’ My friend says, ‘No, there’s fires here.’”
He said his friend told him that corrections officers were walking into the building with ash on their hats and shoulders. Khan said he had no confidence that prison officials would be able to safely evacuate prisoners if a fire became threatening enough.
“Approximately 7,000 people in both prisons,” he said. “And COVID. And buses. Where are you going to get all these buses from? Fire evacuations are relatively fast. You can’t just take your time.”
Stanley-Lockhart, the former prisoner, said he knows the dangers of fires firsthand. While he was incarcerated, he worked among the ranks of prisoners who joined firefighting crews and is a trained emergency medical technician.
Every month while he was in San Quentin, he said, he participated in evacuation drills for staff and corrections officers but still worried that he and other prisoners would be left behind in a fire.
California has long relied on prison firefighting crews to battle blazes. This year, facing a historic wildfire season and with resources stretched thin, there are fewer prisoner firefighters available, either because they were released early because of the pandemic or became sick.
The prisoner firefighting program has long been fiercely debated. Some activists have called it exploitative, because firefighters earn up to just over $5 a day — and an extra $1 per hour while fighting fires — for such dangerous work. Others have said it is deeply unfair that once inmate firefighters are released from prison they are not allowed to become professional firefighters because of their criminal records.
As Stanley-Lockhart was being interviewed on the phone Friday, he suddenly paused when he received a text message, alerting him that Gov. Gavin Newsom of California had just signed a bill that would allow more inmates who work as firefighters while serving their sentences to get jobs with fire departments once they are released.
“Sorry,” he said, as he paused. “That’s huge.”