A group of Oregon inmates who filed a class action against the state Department of Corrections in April are now demanding that they and their fellow detainees be vaccinated against the novel coronavirus.
Juan Chavez, an attorney representing the class, told KOIN 6 News that Oregon’s inability—or unwillingness—to vaccinate inmates against a potentially lethal disease may constitute a form of cruel and unusual punishment.
Chavez further told the station his clients want the federal government to intervene and compel the Department of Corrections to better protect its wards.
In his interview with KOIN 6 News, Chavez observed that the Oregon made the questionable decision to vaccinate comparatively healthy members of the general public before at-risk inmates.
Chavez bolstered his argument by alleging that Oregon inmates have been dying of coronavirus at disproportionate rates.
“What we knew back in April was going to become shockingly clear very soon, if we didn’t change course,” Chavez said. “Respiratory droplets pool in indoor environments like prisons. And people were going to get very, very sick if we didn’t make any changes. This is the sad proof we’ve known all along.”
Chavez’s take on the pandemic has been supported by the Department of Corrections’ own releases.
Jennifer Black, the agency’s communications manager, said the department has had a difficult time of the pandemic—especially in recent days.
“As these past days illustrate, Oregon’s prisons have not escaped the devastating impacts of COVID-19,” Black wrote in an email to OPB.com. “More than half of the DOC’s incarcerated population have been identified as COVID-19 vulnerable, based on community standard criteria. Generally, incarcerated people are in worse health than their peers in the community, and Oregon has one of the oldest incarcerated populations in the country.”
Last Sunday and Monday, for instance, nearly a half-dozen prisoners died from coronavirus; hundreds more have positive diagnoses.
“This is heartbreaking but not surprising,” Chavez said in another interview with OPB.com. “They died because our state wouldn’t challenge mass incarceration even when these people’s lives depended on it.”
And, in spite of the Department of Corrections’ apologetic rhetoric, prisons do not appear to be taking adequate measures to protect vulnerable inmates from coronavirus.
“We’ve heard from multiple folks that even if you’re told to stay in your bunk, your unit is on lockdown, you’re sitting next to people who have tested positive for the disease,” Chavez told KTVB7.
Chavez says that only about 1,300 inmates have so far been vaccinated against the illness. He’s pushing for the state to protect the rest as quickly as they can.