Oregon's Department of Corrections oversees the state penitentiary and 11 other prisons. An inmate at Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla alleges the agency housed him near his former gang members who assaulted him. (Photo provided by Oregon Department of Corrections via Oregon Capital Chronicle)

An inmate at Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla sued the Oregon Department of Corrections, alleging he endured four prison gang assaults because the agency ignored his request to house him in a unit without active members of his former street gang.

The inmate, Michael Watts, filed the federal lawsuit last week in the U.S. District Court’s Pendleton Division. In his lawsuit, which seeks $750,000 in damages, Watts alleges he warned agency staff that he would be attacked if prison officials housed him in a unit with members of his former gang, the Norteños. The gang, started in northern California, distributes marijuana and hard drugs in prisons and extorts drug dealers on the streets, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

“He had been threatened by members of a prison gang and requested to be moved to another unit,” the lawsuit said. “Plaintiff specifically stated that if he was placed on certain units he would (be) assaulted by active gang members. Rather than protect him, defendants repeatedly placed him on units where he would be assaulted.”

Amber Campbell, a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Corrections, declined to comment on the lawsuit. She also didn’t respond to questions about the number of suspected gang members at Two Rivers and whether there had been problems with gang attacks.

Two Rivers is one of 12 prisons in Oregon. It opened in 2000 and holds a maximum of about 1,600 inmates in medium and minimum security units. It currently has about 1,400 inmates, according to a September report. 

Watts alleges he told prison staffers he was a “dropout,” the gang’s moniker for those who leave the organization. And gang members are “active” if they are still a member, the lawsuit said.

“Dropouts are subject to violence at the hands of active gang members,” the lawsuit said. “A unit is an active unit if it houses active gang members. Active members frequently assault dropouts if one is placed on an active unit.”

Watts, 32, entered the prison in 2020 after he was sentenced to five years and 10 months for a robbery at a grocery store in Medford, according to Jackson County court and corrections records.

The Oregon Department of Corrections spokesperson declined to say whether it has a policy for housing former or current gang members. 

Watts’ lawsuit alleges Two Rivers previously had a policy that housed former and active gang members in separate units to prevent assaults. But in 2019, the prison discontinued that policy and now assigns housing based on a computer program called “Cellmatch” that doesn’t take an inmate’s prior gang affiliation into consideration, the lawsuit said.

“This has resulted in gang members and dropout members being housed in the same units,” the lawsuit said. “As a consequence, gang dropouts are routinely being assaulted by active gang members. This is known by ODOC staff.”

The lawsuit does not mention whether Watts needed medical attention after being attacked. It said he suffered burning and respiratory problems after correctional officers used pepper spray to stop one assault.  

Watts’ lawsuit says he was assaulted by prison gang members four times between October 2021 and June 2022. In the first assault, a gang member attacked Watts in the prison yard. It said a prison official pepper sprayed him while the assailant was on him, calling the force “unnecessary and excessive.”

In the second assault, in January 2022, gang members working in the food service area assaulted Watts when he was holding his meal tray and waiting for food, the lawsuit said.

Watts alleges the agency transferred him from the disciplinary segregation unit – similar to solitary confinement – to a housing unit with gang members. A correctional officer told Watts if he refused the housing assignment, he would go back to the disciplinary unit, the lawsuit said. 

Disciplinary units limit the contact inmates can have with others and restrict their movement. Rather than lose privileges, Watts said he accepted the housing assignment. Less than a week later, a gang member assaulted him in March 2022 – the third case, the lawsuit said. 

In the fourth case, a gang member assaulted Watts when he was waiting for his breakfast, the lawsuit alleges.

Watts said he cannot disguise his past as a gang member because of tattoos. When gang members see them, they ask him about his status in the organization and attack him when he tells them he’s no longer a member, the lawsuit said.

In his lawsuit, Watts alleges the agency ignored his grievances. He asks the court to find that the agency violated his constitutional rights and seeks an injunction forcing the agency to protect former gang members from active gang members in state prisons. 


Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. He has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report.