Last week, authorities in southern Oregon charged Michael Jarrod Bakkela, 41, with starting part of one of this year’s most destructive fires, saying he lit a fire in Ashland as a larger blaze moved toward the area. The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office said he denied that he had started the large fire nearby.
The Jackson County district attorney charged him with arson, criminal mischief and reckless endangering.
Fire precautions for prisoners leave them vulnerable to the pandemic.
As wildfires tore through huge swaths of Oregon this week, prisoners were hurried away from the encroaching flames — not to freedom but 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.
Safe from one catastrophe, but delivered to another: the coronavirus pandemic, which has spread at an alarming rate in America’s prisons.
“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, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, a prisoner advocacy organization.
Never easy, being incarcerated has perhaps never been a more traumatic experience than it is today, especially on the West Coast where prisoners are more vulnerable than ever to the twin crises of the pandemic and a historic wildfire season made worse by climate change. Virus outbreaks have spread through cellblocks — Oregon’s state prison system has had 1,600 infections over the last three months — and poor ventilation systems have whipped in smoke from the outside.
Before the fires started, the virus spread in America’s prisons partly because authorities carried out routine transfers of prisoners without testing them first for the coronavirus and isolating those infected. Now that fires have forced Oregon officials to move so many prisoners so quickly, without taking precautions against the virus, inmates and advocates worry it is only a matter of time before people fall sick.