Bryan MacDonald has been in the Lane County Jail for more than five months.
And for MacDonald, those last five months have felt like five years, between worrying about a global pandemic and watching his limited rights as a prisoner slip further away.
There are no in-person visits, no private meetings with attorneys and there’s a trial date that seems to continually be pushed back. When new inmates arrive, they are quarantined for only seven days — not 14 — before they are put with the rest of the group. And each day spent in the jail means interactions with workers not wearing masks and a seemingly indifferent view on whether the prisoners are socially distancing.
“The COVID-19 situation is just appalling,” MacDonald says during a phone call from the jail with Eugene Weekly. The phones only allow for five minutes at time, cutting MacDonald off four times during the first of several interviews.
“What I believe the jail is doing in regards to COVID-19 is everything on the surface. They are doing what it looks like to make us safe.”
The county jail, located on 5th Avenue in Eugene, has had only one confirmed case of COVID-19. But MacDonald says he and other inmates are worried there could be more, because of the lack of proper precautions, and they feel their rights are being violated.
Advocates also share this worry. In contrast, they point to the success of the Washington County Jail, where no inmates are known to have contracted the virus and prevention methods are more robust.
Oregon has seen a substantial spread of the virus over the last two months, averaging more than 100 cases a day, while Lane County, among other counties, is in Phase 2 of reopening.
In May, the state penitentiary in Salem had an outbreak that infected more than 141 people — 115 inmates and 26 employees — in the facility. Because of the close proximity between inmates and the guards, the virus can spread easily without proper protocols in place.
And where employees can go home and self-isolate, inmates cannot.
In response to the conditions at the Lane County Jail, MacDonald, who is a pre-trial detainee in on assault charges, filed a lawsuit against Jail Captain Clint Riley, Lane County Sheriff Cliff Harold, Gov. Kate Brown and others. MacDonald has no legal experience and no lawyers representing him, he says. MacDonald read some books, wrote out the lawsuit and filed it on June 22, hoping the court will push the jail to keep inmates safe from the virus.
He is also in the middle of a hunger strike that started on June 21, hoping to draw the public’s attention to the grievances he has against the jail.
For months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged people to stay six feet away from others. Physical distance keeps the virus from spreading.
In addition to remaining distant, the CDC also recommends that people wear masks whenever possible, because COVID-19 spreads through respiratory droplets. Wearing a mask significantly reduces the risk of the virus, according to the CDC.
The CDC also lists guidelines for correctional institutions.
But inmates at the Lane County Jail say employees rarely wear masks while at work. MacDonald says he watches guards go into the quarantined section of the jail with no PPE, then come over to the other inmates, potentially spreading the virus.
“I watch them go in there with no masks and no protective equipment whatsoever,” he says.
Another inmate, Thomas Retallick Jr., says he has observed that the medical staff doesn’t always wear gloves or masks.
“Some do from time to time,” he says.
Lane County Corrections representative Carrie Carver says in an email to EW that masks are available to both inmates and workers, though a mask is not required. She also says that the jail has other precautions put in place for the virus to help keep prisoners socially distant, such as reducing the jail capacity by 32 percent.
Gov. Brown recently enacted a mandate requiring Oregonians to wear masks when they are inside a public space, but the Governor’s Office did not respond when asked if this applies to jails. Carver did not say whether or not the Lane County Jail is subject to enforce this and said to direct the question to Brown.
Carver also says that workers are screened each day by having their temperatures checked and that they are required to wear gloves and a mask around food carts. MacDonald says this is the one circumstance where he has seen people wear masks.
“Inmate workers who clean common areas are also offered PPE appropriate for what they are cleaning — some situations may require more PPE than others,” she says.
When asked about inmates being socially distant, Carver says the jail has two types of housing — single cells and dorm style. Inmates are not allowed to go into another inmate’s cell, she says, and explains that the dorms are large spaces already and that the jail’s reduced capacity provides even more space.
Retallick says that social distancing protocols also apply to the common areas, where it is not as much enforced. While talking to EW, he says he is sitting a foot and half away from other inmates using the phones.
Retallick adds that in the beginning of the pandemic, when they were still seeing judges in person, inmates would be stuck close together on an elevator, then placed six feet away from the judge.
“When they file us into a courtroom, we move six feet apart from the judge, then they cram us into an elevator.”
A study conducted by the CDC found that although symptom screenings are important, the data indicates that it is “inadequate to promptly identify and isolate infected persons.” They recommend additional strategies, such as physical distance, cloth face coverings and infection control training for staff members.
Out of 37 jurisdictions in the study, 86 percent reported a confirmed COVID-19 case. They concluded that following rigorous protocols and quickly identifying those who have the virus is crucial to preventing its spread in a correctional facility.
As the jail struggles to keep up with COVID-19 regulations, MacDonald says he feels like his constitutional rights are being violated for other reasons. He alleges that after filing his lawsuit against the jail, he was retaliated against. He and other inmates were shuffled around the jail, and he says deputies are trying to find reasons to write him up.
He says that visitations have been canceled for months. Inmates are allowed to use the phone bank and set up video chats with friends and loved ones, but the technology comes with its own barriers.
Kaulin Achin has been in the jail since June 16. He says he has been trying to get a hold of his mom. The jail is supposed to give inmates 50 minutes of free video calls once a week and 30 minutes of phone calls, he says. But Achin says that during the first five minutes of one visit, the app, Telmates, glitched and told him he had a negative number of minutes left. He was charged for those minutes.
Achin went to the deputies and told him about his technical difficulties, but the deputies explained that the app is through a third party, and the jail has no control over it.
“Multiple people had gone to the deputy about it, but they just say it’s a third party,” he says. After his short phone call Achin was out of minutes for the week.
Sam Yelger, a representative of Lane County Mutual Aid who is in contact with people in the jail, says it doesn’t make sense that they are not allowed visitations.
“It really doesn’t make sense for them to discontinue visitations,” Yelger says. He adds that trial dates being pushed back is another concern and without outside pressure, he thinks the jail will not change its ways. Lane County Mutual Aid, a group for sharing and organizing resources in Lane County, has acted as a liaison for prisoners during COVID-19.
MacDonald says in addition to the visitations being affected, visits with attorneys no longer feel private because they are done through phone call check-ins or plexi-glass meetings. As a pretrial inmate, his trial date has also been pushed back because of the reduction of court cases seen by a judge. MacDonald says he has the right to a “fair and speedy trial,” and that Oregon law says that inmates have a right to a trial within 60 days.
“We are frustrated with the constitutional rights that are being trampled on,” MacDonald says.
Without being able to sit side-by-side with an attorney, it’s difficult to have a private conversation about a case or to pass papers back and forth, MacDonald says.
Alice Lundell, director of communication with the Oregon Justice Resource Center, says that they have been concerned for a while about how correctional facilities will react to COVID-19, especially when it comes to retaliation.
She says a plaintiff was retaliated against for speaking out in OJRC’s own lawsuit against the prison system.
“This retaliation for defending their rights or other people is a perennial issue in the prison system. It’s something we need to be really mindful of in the community,” she says, adding that prisoners should be able to come forward about COVID-19 concerns.
Washington County, an area that encompasses the cities of Beaverton and Tigard, has seen more than 1,300 cases, but none so far in its county jail. Deputy Brian Van Kleef, the public information officer for the Washington County Sheriff’s Department, says the jail has had success due to the protocols put in place to keep the virus from spreading.
When an inmate is processed, they are screened for symptoms of the virus and have their temperature taken, Van Kleef explains.
“They come into one unit, and if they have no symptoms for 14 days and they are still in custody, then they are moved to the other unit,” he says.
Inmates, he says, are required to wear masks when they are out of their cells. They also eat meals in their cells now as opposed to the jail’s four-person tables where inmates would normally eat.
Van Kleef says the Washington County jail has also reduced its 572-bed capacity by almost 50 percent. Staff has shut down the housing unit where cells have multiple beds and a shared bathroom.
“Because people weren’t able to socially distance and the units had shared bathrooms, we closed it down completely. We are only housing people individually with their own bathroom so they can have that safe space, he says.”
But at the Lane County Jail, MacDonald says some inmates are placed in dormitory-style housing, meaning multiple beds that are several feet apart as opposed to six feet. He says that in a dorm setting, there is no way to keep distance.
MacDonald says he has complained about the conditions of the jail for months and has seen no evidence of things getting better. And that is when he decided to file the lawsuit.
Working From the Inside
MacDonald has recruited other inmates to help him in suing the jail and Gov. Brown, and in his hunger strike. He says that each day he calls Lane County Mutual Aid, and checks in with someone to keep them updated on the progress of his hunger strike.
MacDonald says he has been taking vitamins and drinking Gatorade drink packets to stay hydrated and to take care of his immune system.
He says multiple inmates have joined him at one point or the other, and that the jail is starting to take him seriously, now checking his vitals daily as he forgoes eating food. The goal of the strike is to draw attention to the conditions and actions of the jail, he says.
As for the lawsuit, MacDonald says he is already learning how the legal system works after finding out that the assigned judge, Ann Aiken, had dismissed Scott Novoscone and Retallick as plaintiffs in the case. The court said the other plaintiffs have to file their own lawsuit, or the group has to get a lawyer to make it a class action suit. MacDonald says the jail had moved the inmates around after all were named as plaintiffs.
He is hoping a lawyer will pick up the case and that it can bring change to the way the jail is operating.
The lawsuit will take a while to play out, but in the meantime, Lundell of OJRC says prisons across Oregon need to reduce their populations by 40 percent to achieve the recommended social distance. This means that every correctional facility has to make decisions on who to let out. For some jails, including Washington County, this means letting people out who committed low-level non-violent crimes.
Lundell says Brown also has a role to play in who is released.
Recently, Brown announced that after a case-by-case review by the Oregon Department of Corrections, she will free 57 “medically vulnerable” adults from state custody because of the risk factor.
Brown’s press secretary Liz Merah wrote in an email that Brown has no plans for additional actions right now, and that any new cases or future decisions will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
“The Governor’s top priority is keeping Oregonians safe and healthy — regardless of where they are living as we manage this pandemic,” Merah said.
For this story, EW spoke with a handful of other inmates who either spent time in the county jail or are currently in jail. They all corroborated MacDonald’s concerns, some even more so because of underlying health factors.
Lundell says in order to ensure inmate safety, jails need to release inmates and to have better testing.
“We are seeing plenty of evidence that these are high risk environments, and we do not need to be seeing new cases,” Lundell says. “We need mass testing and we need mass release.”