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Oregon Inmates Evacuate Amid Wildfires

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So thousands of prison inmates were among those who had to evacuate because of the wildfires in Oregon. The state called the process a success. But prisoners tell Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson it was a traumatic and poorly organized operation. And just a warning - some listeners may find details in this piece disturbing.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: Last Thursday, smoke from the Beachie Creek and Riverside fires burning southeast of Portland seeped into the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, the state's only prison for women. Anna Valdez was one of the more than 1,000 inmates there officials decided they had to evacuate along with nearly 300 men in a different part of the prison.

ANNA VALDEZ: I don't know how they're going to do this. They have no coordination at all. You hear them yelling at us? It's insane right now.

WILSON: Valdez called as guards yelled for inmates to get their things.

VALDEZ: They're evacuating the entire prison right now. They're giving us a plastic bag to just take our meds and a few items and go. They're passing us bags right now, just a small plastic bag. And they said, just take what you can. I got to get off.

WILSON: All right. Bye-bye.

VALDEZ: We're scared.

WILSON: Valdez and others described a harrowing journey over the Cascade Mountains to a prison about 120 miles away. In some cases, the women were loaded onto school buses late that night. Many sat for hours in the parking lot, their wrists zip tied. Rod Richardson has been speaking daily to his ex-wife, Tammy Saylor, who was evacuated.

ROD RICHARDSON: Tammy sat on a bus for 8 1/2 hours. Everyone was told by the officers to go to the bathroom in their pants. Women were peeing in cups and throwing tampons and feces out the windows of the buses because they could not leave the bus to use the bathroom.

WILSON: Many of the inmates arrived at the other prison hungry, dirty and exhausted. Many of the women didn't receive bedding or a mattress until late that night. Some rested on bare metal bed frames.

These wildfire evacuations come as the state's prison system has tried to keep inmates apart to prevent coronavirus infections. Still, more than 900 inmates have tested positive, and six have died from COVID-19.

Coffee Creek was just one of four prisons that had to evacuate. More than 1,300 men from three prisons near Salem were packed into the already nearly full Oregon State Penitentiary for several days.

COLETTE PETERS: We have individuals on cots or on mattresses in the activities room, in the music room, in the gymnasium - absolutely anywhere we could find space.

WILSON: Corrections Director Colette Peters says this is the first time the agency has evacuated prisons on this scale. Peters acknowledged there were things that did not go well. But she stressed it's a temporary situation and one she argues could have been much worse.

PETERS: We successfully transported thousands of individuals across the state safely. Nobody was injured. Nobody went missing.

WILSON: Peters says the agency used its plan for a major earthquake that would require the Department of Corrections to evacuate half of the inmate population with only half of its staff reporting to work.

TARA HERIVEL: It appears as if there wasn't a plan for this evacuation.

WILSON: Tara Herivel is an attorney who represents inmates currently in the state's prison system.

HERIVEL: It appears as if it was extremely haphazard and ad hoc.

WILSON: Herivel predicts there'll be litigation over the Department of Corrections' handling of the evacuations. With the immediate crisis of the fires winding down, inmates and their attorneys now worry about COVID-19.

HERIVEL: We're going to see an outbreak or outbreaks now from the conduct over the last week.

WILSON: Already, that seems to be happening. The state's prison system now says two of the inmates it evacuated are positive for COVID-19. Anna Valdez, the inmate, says she's concerned.

VALDEZ: It's just been so unorganized. I feel like this is a learning experience for them, but it's at our expense.

WILSON: She says some inmates have already started to return to the Coffee Creek prison. But with cases of COVID-19, she says, they face a new kind of immediate threat.

For NPR News, I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLDTWIG'S "DUNES (FT. LIME KAIN)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.