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COVID-19 Injunction Lapses in Oregon, Another Fails in Massachusetts

by Mark Wilson

On June 21, 2022, a preliminary injunction granted by the federal court for the District of Oregon expired, ending its mandate that state prison employees comply with the COVID-19 masking policy of the state Department of Corrections (DOC).

Aaron Hanna, a prisoner at Two Rivers Correctional Institution (TRCI), sued DOC officials for their allegedly deliberate indifference to his risk of contracting the disease by failing to consistently enforce the mask policy. He moved for a preliminary injunction.

The Court appointed an attorney, Juan Chavez, who is also lead counsel in a federal class-action filed by state prisoners seeking damages for the risk they were exposed to by DOC of contracting COVID-19. [See: PLN, June 2022, p.16.] Following a hearing, the Court granted Hanna’s request on March 22, 2022.

Finding he was likely to succeed on the merits of his claim, the Court noted that Hanna presented testimony from a DOC official who admitted that guards “have been reluctant to wear their masks because they do not believe in masking, believe masking rules are a violation of their rights, or believe that COVID-19 is not real.” With DOC issuing “only eleven verbal reminders and two non-disciplinary letters of expectation” in two years, the Court also found that Defendants “have not imposed any meaningful discipline” for violating masking rules.

Approximately one-third of TRCI employees received exemptions to DOC’s vaccine mandate, requiring them to wear N95 masks. However, the prison’s COVID Compliance Officer had no idea which employees received exemptions, so “it is impossible for him to monitor masking compliance in any meaningful way,” the Court said.

“In light of public health guidance more than two years into the pandemic,” the Court continued, a guard’s “inconsistent or improper masking while in close vicinity of [prisoners] demonstrates deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm.” See: Hanna v. Peters, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50182 (D. Or.).

Across the country in Massachusetts, the state’s highest court had earlier sided with prison officials facing a similar challenge from a class of state prisoners also seeking a preliminary injunction. In that case, however, Plaintiffs sought to enjoin the DOC to reduce the prison population in order to lessen their risk of contracting COVID-19.

The decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court was issued on November 18, 2021, finding that prison officials were not deliberately indifferent because they continued to implement nonpharmaceutical interventions that had defeated an earlier motion for injunctive relief in June 2020. See: Foster v. Comm’r of Corr., 484 Mass. 698 (2020).

On December 24, 2020, Plaintiffs moved again for an injunction, alleging that DOC’s prison population reduction efforts were inadequate and urging immediate implementation of a home confinement program, furloughs, maximization of good conduct deduction awards, and expedited medical paroles. Five days after that motion was filed, the state legislature directed DOC to use or consider the same prison population reduction measures in a new decarceration law. See: St. 2020, c. 227 § 2, line item 8900-0001.

Noting that only a 17% reduction of the prison population ensued, the Court also acknowledged it was “undisputed” that prison conditions — “roughly one-half of the inmate population is not housed in single cells” — meant that “many prisoners are not in fact able to keep a six-foot distance from others at all times.”

Nevertheless, the Court found it significant that DOC had offered vaccines and a vaccine benefit education campaign, providing the Moderna vaccine to 78% of medically eligible prisoners by July 7, 2021. Calling this “the state-of-the-art medical response in combatting COVID-19,” the Court remanded the case to the Superior Court to “proceed as an emergency matter” on Plaintiffs’ claims that DOC was in violation of the new decarceration provisions. See: Foster v. Comm’r of Corr., 488 Mass. 643 (2021).

Arguments on that claim were heard on July 13, 2022. PLN will report the outcome as it becomes available. See: Foster v. Mici, Mass. Super. (Suffolk Cty.), Case No. 2084-CV-00855. 

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Related legal cases

Hanna v. Peters

Foster v. Mici

Foster v. Comm’r of Corr.

Foster v. Comm’r of Corr.