Powder River

Scenes in the dining hall look much different these days at the Powder River Correctional Facility in Baker City. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the number of chairs in the hall has been cut in half.

The Powder River Correctional Facility in Baker City has had 18 inmates test positive for COVID-19.

The minimum-security prison, which houses about 320 inmates, had until earlier this month avoided the virus among the inmate population.

Powder River reported its first positive test of an inmate on Dec. 13, Debi Geddes, the prison’s correctional rehabilitation manager/administrative services manager, wrote in an email to the Herald.

Two employees have also tested positive recently. Those cases were reported on Dec. 20.

That was also the day with the largest number of positive tests among inmates, with six.

In a September interview, Powder River Superintendent Tom McLay said all inmates who are scheduled to be transferred to another prison or released in their home county are tested prior to the move.

In her email to the Herald, Geddes wrote that “it would be difficult to confirm that (an inmate transfer) is how COVID was introduced into the facility.”

Geddes wrote that no inmates who tested positive have required hospital treatment. Each inmate, on the day he tested positive, was transported to a different state facility that, unlike Powder River, has 24-hour medical care, Geddes wrote.

Until Dec. 13, Powder River’s only positive case was an employee who tested positive Aug. 24.

In September, Geddes said that that employee was infected while on vacation outside Baker County and was never exposed to other workers or inmates.

Powder River is now listed as a Tier 4 facility, meaning the prison is quarantined for 14 days.

Geddes said that in addition to typical prevention measures such as frequent hand-washing and use of face coverings, employees are screened for symptoms, and inmates are screened daily.

“Furthermore, movement is being limited as much as possible with the AIC (adults in custody, the term the Oregon Department of Corrections uses for inmates) population to decrease the likelihood of cross contamination,” Geddes wrote. “Each unit is being treated as its own ‘household.’ ”

Powder River employs about 100 people, most of them Corrections Department employees but also some contractors, primarily employees from New Directions Northwest in Baker City. New Directions operates the drug and alcohol treatment program that more than 125 inmates participate in.

Geddes wrote in her email to the Herald that New Directions employees continue to operate the treatment program inside the prison, subject to the same COVID-19 screening that other employees go through before they enter the facility.

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