San Francisco, California – This year, wildfires roared across the US state of Oregon. It was the state’s earliest fire season in 40 years, with some of the largest fires in state history. Wind carried smoke into Tara Withrow’s cell at Snake River Correctional Institution in eastern Oregon, as the prison sweltered from a heat dome that hit the Pacific Northwest.
The cloth masks provided by the prison gave no relief from the smoke, Withrow told Al Jazeera, “It was like you smoked a pack of cigarettes.”
This was not the first time that wildfires had threatened the state’s prisoners. Withrow, 52, was among more than 20 incarcerated people who were allegedly assaulted by other inmates when wildfires forced Oregon prisons to evacuate in September 2020. Inmates were moved into other prisons that were already full.
According to incident reports obtained by Al Jazeera through a public records request, most of the assaults at the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) – the facility that absorbed a majority of the evacuees – involved prisoners with gang affiliations. At times, the chaos upended regular operations.
Although the Oregon Department of Corrections has a system to separate incarcerated people from each other if there is a known threat, such as rival gangs, records show that when prison populations were combined, documented gang members assaulted rival gang members and gang drop-outs from different prisons.
The wildfire evacuations highlighted the vulnerability of incarcerated people, who must rely on prison officials to keep them safe. But as climate change intensifies, some inmates fear they are being forgotten.
In Withrow’s case, the state moved more than 1,000 people from Coffee Creek Correctional Facility into Deer Ridge Correctional Institute, where she was incarcerated at the time. Withrow, a Latina transgender woman, said a man who had been evacuated from Coffee Creek made transphobic comments to her. The next day, as she stood in line for dinner, the man punched her in the back of the neck and she fell to the ground. “I saw white stars,” she said.
The health unit took photos and an X-ray of her swollen neck, and gave her an ice pack, she said. She told staff she wanted to press charges, but a year later, she doesn’t know what happened to the man. “I want justice,” she said. “I feel like I was forgotten about, kicked to the curb.”
Withrow believed the man would not have had the opportunity to assault her if the state had kept the two prison populations apart. Asked about Withrow’s complaint, Oregon corrections spokesperson Jennifer Black declined to comment “on matters of current or pending litigation”.
Many prisons along the west coast are located near wildfire danger zones, putting at risk incarcerated Americans, who are disproportionately Black and Latinx. In California, 24 prisons housing more than 65,000 people sit within five miles (eight kilometres) of fire hazard zones, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
On September 8 2020, Oregon declared a state of emergency from the wildfires and began evacuating more than 3,500 people from four of the state’s 14 prisons. The OSP absorbed the populations of three of those facilities, doubling its population, records show. A week later, evacuees had returned to their home prisons.
In the first four days of the OSP absorbing evacuees, there were 11 fights and 21 people were assaulted, according to records obtained by Al Jazeera. Most attacks involved gang members assaulting rival gang members or gang drop-outs, and most occurred in the dining hall, where prison populations mixed during meals.
Assaults left blood on the dining room floor. One inmate was left with a bloody gash on his head after a fight. Another was attacked so severely that he was transferred outside the prison for treatment.
According to the records, medical documents were missing, so the full scale of injuries is unknown. OSP staff wrote that the assaults “constituted an extreme threat to the safe, secure and orderly operation of the facility”.
‘Treated worse than animals’
The number of fights peaked on September 9, with six fights in the dining hall started by gang members, the records indicate. The largest was about 4pm, when five OSP prisoners allegedly snuck into a restricted area and attacked two evacuees from another prison. Staff used pepper spray on those involved. One officer wrote in a report that prisoners fell to the ground and “were just balled up taking the blows”.
Amid the chaos, a man in the mental health unit reportedly hit his head on the wall enough times to cover the floor in blood.
Staff were overwhelmed by the fights, often failing to warn inmates before using pepper spray, the records show. In one incident, an officer got an eyeful of pepper spray and had trouble seeing. Another officer pepper-sprayed prisoners who were not fighting, and another punched a prisoner five times, even though the prisoner was not resisting, according to the records. Prisoners involved in fights were sent to segregation.
“There was a lot of fighting going on, and they didn’t know how to operate the prison,” Antonio Lawrence, who was incarcerated at the OSP during the wildfires, told Al Jazeera. Meals were interrupted, and after officers used pepper spray during incidents in the dining hall, some prisoners ate “the same food that was just pepper-sprayed”, he said.
Residents search through the remnants of a destroyed home after a wildfire, in Medford, Oregon, in September 2020 [File: David Ryder/Reuters]
“We were treated worse than animals,” Lawrence said.
According to Oregon lawyer Tara Herivel, “all hell broke loose”.
“They just put everyone in together, and that’s insane. That is totally derelict,” she told Al Jazeera. “You have this complex classification system at any prison, and they just blew all that off.”
Black did not respond to detailed questions about the incidents in the OSP reports, citing the possibility of litigation.
‘A scary feeling’
Before the wildfires hit last year, it is not clear what protocols were in place at Oregon prisons for wildfire evacuations. When asked about this, Black said only that all Oregon prisons currently have wildfire evacuation plans, and they “routinely practice a variety of safety drills” – although she would not give details, citing safety concerns.
Black did not respond to a question from Al Jazeera on how the department planned to separate prison populations in future evacuations. She said that one prison manager who was suspended and investigated after last year’s events, later transferred voluntarily to a different prison to manage security. No other staff faced disciplinary action.
Although media outlets reported last year that the evacuations were mismanaged, leading to assaults among gang members and allowing COVID-19 to spread, the Oregon Department of Corrections did not publicise the full scope of the violence. A subsequent report by the department described the assaults as “several [inmate] fights”, noting that “some were one-on-one” and some involved up to four prisoners, with no “significant injuries” recorded throughout.
Firefighters from New Mexico work amid heavy ash and dust to help contain the Bootleg Fire near Silver Lake, Oregon, on July 29, 2021 [File: Maranie Staab/Reuters]
Brandon Kelly, the OSP’s superintendent, told Willamette Week that if he were to grade how the department handled the wildfire evacuations, he would give it an A.
Botched evacuations aside, many prisons built decades ago do not have ventilation systems designed for intensifying wildfires and heat. Oregon’s oldest institutions were built in the 1950s or earlier and do not have central air-conditioning, Black said; instead, they rely on “alternative cooling methods”, such as fans and providing inmates with ice water.
Speaking about safety measures more broadly, Withrow said that during her four years in prison, she had not experienced a fire drill – which Black said are standard policy, held several times a year at Oregon prisons – until this the middle of this past year.
“It’s a scary feeling when you’re locked in, because you’re constantly thinking, when we’re locked in our cells, are they going to abandon us?” Withrow said.
For her, the wildfires and their aftermath have underscored the risks of being held at the whims of the state, “I would ask Madam Governor Kate Brown, please do not forget about us. We are also Oregonians; we are also human beings.”