As wildfires have torn through huge swaths of Oregon, prisoners were hurried away from the flames 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 the coronavirus pandemic, which has spread at an alarming rate in prisons, reports the New York Times. “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 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 West Coast prisons. Virus outbreaks have spread through cellblocks — Oregon’s state prison system has had 1,600 infections over the last three months — as poor ventilation systems have whipped in smoke from the fires outside. The dilemma for prison officials, too, is complex, as they grapple with managing large facilities through simultaneous dangers. Before the fires started, the virus spread in prisons partly because transfers of prisoners proceeded without testing them first and isolating those infected. Now fires have forced Oregon officials to move so many prisoners so quickly that it may be only a matter of time before transferred inmates begin falling sick. There have been more than 200,000 coronavirus infections in prisons and jails and nearly 1,200 deaths since the pandemic began. As the wildfires have raged, the problems have been acute in Oregon, where officials ordered evacuations of about 2,750 prisoners.