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Legislative subcommittee rejects funding request for second women's prison

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The vote is now up to the Emergency Board, which meets Wednesday


PARIS ACHEN - Oregon State Penitentiary MinimumSALEM — An Oregon Emergency Board subcommittee has rejected a request by state corrections officials for $3.8 million to continue laying the groundwork for opening a second women's prison in Oregon.

"If we can't come up with a something that...reduces the number of emergency beds to a more reasonable level, then we actually may have to go forward with this decision to open (the prison)," said Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton.

The decision came amid backlash from justice reform advocates and others over the Department of Corrections' plan to open the second prison in June 2017 for as few as 20 female inmates. Despite a statewide revenue shortfall of $1.7 billion, Gov. Kate Brown also had allocated $17.5 million to open the prison in her proposed budget, released Dec. 1.

The subcommittee voted unanimously to deny DOC's request Monday, Dec. 12, but the subcommittee's vote is only advisory in nature. The full Emergency Board was scheduled to consider the request Wednesday, Dec. 14. The board already approved $1 million in May to make building repairs at Oregon State Penitentiary Minimum in Salem, where the second women's prison would be housed.

"This country incarcerates more poeple than any other country in the world," he said.

Lawmakers approved $55 million in "justice reinvestment" grants to counties over the past three years with the hope of avoiding opening additional prisons. The grant proceeds are intended to pay for programs that help keep offenders out of prison. Despite those concerted efforts, the population at the state's sole women's prison — Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville - has hovered over the 1,280 limit since May. The population reached an all-time high of 1,315 in November, said Liz Craig, an administrator in the DOC Office of Communications.

State corrections officials have used the 1,280-population threshold as a trigger for opening a second women's prison.

DOC officials have been delaying additional monetary requests for opening the facility "solely based on our commitment to justice reinvestment," DOC Director Colette Peters said.

The funding denial gives more momentum to some of the efforts underway to decrease the female inmate population.

"I like the fact that the pressure requires us to move toward alternative corrections systems, alternative ways of treating the 70 percent of women who are there, not for violent crimes, but for property crimes (and) drug-related issues," Monroe said.

Marion and Lane counties both have started work release programs that are projected to keep 21 to 26 women out of prison. Those programs alone would address overcrowding at Coffee Creek.

Projections suggest the women's population could increase by about 100 over the 1,280 limit in the next 10 years. Given the small number of offenders, DOC could find less expensive alternatives for housing those inmates, said Tim Colahan, executive director of the Oregon District Attorneys Association. One of those options would be to pay to house the inmates at county jails, where there are vacancies. Multnomah County, for instance, has about 40 empty beds, Colahan said.

The DOC has identified women who have court detainers in counties other than where they were convicted and have asked county district attorneys try to address those inmates' legal issues when the inmates first go to prison. So far, DOC has provided the district attorneys' association with a list of 277 detainers from other courts on female inmates that need to be addressed, and those names have been distributed to county district attorneys, Colahan said. Resolving the issues with those detainers while women are in prison could make more inmates eligible for some early release and other programs, which would relieve pressure on Coffee Creek, he said.

Several legislators also plan to sponsor bills that would help reduce the women's prison population.

Rep. Carla Piluso, D-Gresham, for example, wants to expand an early-release program that already has saved 182,642 state prison bed days. Known as short-term transitional leave, the program has been "the most successful sentencing change" in recent years in terms of saving money and increasing public safety, said Michael Schmidt, executive director of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.

Inmates eligible for the program are released 90 days short of their sentence. Piluso's bill could increase that to 120 to 180 days.

The governor's office last week defended Brown's decision to include the women's prison in her proposed budget.

"Gov. Brown found it would be irresponsible for the state not to set into motion plans to address future capacity concerns," said Bryan Hockaday, a spokesman in the governor's office. "However, Gov. Brown remains hopeful that through thoughtful and well-coordinated collaboration with Oregon counties and community corrections, more women will have access to workforce and transitional training programs."

If officials can avoid opening the second prison, Brown plans to ask lawmakers to invest those savings in "proven initiatives that help people to be successful and avoid the criminal justice system all together," Hockaday said.

"Not only is the opening of OSPM costly to taxpayers at a time when state resources are already so limited, it is contrary to Oregon's approach of justice reinvestment to reduce recidivism and supporting the self-sufficiency of prior offenders," he said.

Oregon State Penitentiary Minimum — an annex of the Oregon State Penitentiary — was mothballed in 2010 to save money during the recession.


By Paris Achen
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau Reporter
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