Oregon

What should Oregon do about crowded women’s prison?

Debate over second women’s prison comes to a head next week in Salem

By Taylor W. Anderson / The Bulletin

When Oregon Gov. Kate Brown released her proposed budget last week, she included an earmark that has justice reform advocates fuming.

In the face of crowding at the state’s only female prison at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, Brown said she wanted lawmakers to increase funding in the Department of Corrections budget by $17.5 million to operate a lower-security facility that would house female inmates.

That set off a firestorm among criminal justice reform advocates who said the Democratic governor should work to reduce the prison population rather than pay to house more inmates.

“We think there are more financially responsible solutions than opening a second women’s prison,” said Julia Yoshimoto, program director and attorney for the Oregon Justice Resource Center’s Women in Prison Project. “Once those bed spaces are open, the way the system works is we’re going to fill it and it’s going to become the new normal to have this number of women incarcerated in Oregon.”

The state has already taken steps to open a facility for female inmates — the once-closed Oregon State Penitentiary Minimum in Salem — starting next spring or summer in the face of limited beds at Coffee Creek and projections of crowding over the coming decade.

Legislators gave the Department of Corrections $1 million in May to rehab the facility. Now the agency is asking lawmakers for $3.8 million from the current budget to get the building up and running before the next budget begins July 1, 2017.

The agency would transfer 176 women from Coffee Creek to the new facility beginning June 1.

“We agree with many of our stakeholders that reactivating OSPM is not ideal,” the agency said in a written statement. “However, unlike the male population, we have no location in which to ‘flex’ additional women if they arrive at intake.”

While it’s rare for lawmakers to reject proposals that make it to the agenda of the Emergency Board — a committee that approves or rejects funding tweaks throughout the two-year budget cycle — this request isn’t a done deal, with several members of the committee skeptical of the proposal before hearings that start today.

“It’s my hope that the item gets pulled,” said Sen. Jackie Winters, a Salem Republican and member of the committee who said she wants to give counties time to work on efforts that would reduce pressure on Coffee Creek. “I believe that if you open it, they’ll come.”

The proposal will first head to a subcommittee today before going before the full Emergency Board, which has 20 members, on Wednesday. Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, is a member of the subcommittee that will take up the request first.

Huffman said he’s leaning against the new facility and instead prefers other sentencing and treatment options.

“I will have to hear a very strong argument for bed expansion to make me feel differently,” Huffman said.

After two decades of rapidly climbing incarceration rates among women in Oregon, Coffee Creek, outside Wilsonville, has held over the 1,280 capacity every day since May 18, according to the Department of Corrections.

The department’s request for money to open a second facility partially relies on actual prison populations and on long-term prison population estimates by the state’s economists. While the population has been above 1,280 in recent months, forecasts from economists have varied.

The Office of Economic Analysis said in its forecast last year that the female inmate population would drop below 1,280 by March and stay below that level for the coming four years. But its latest forecast in October reversed that estimate, and economists now believe the female inmate population will exceed Coffee Creek’s capacity for the next decade.

Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis said he’s in favor of opening the new facility.

“The projected population growth will exceed (Coffee Creek’s) ability to house inmates,” he said, “and without opening new beds it puts the safety of both inmates and staff at risk and cuts down on the kinds of rehabilitative programs there is room to do in an adequately sized facility.”

Brown’s office said the governor preferred spending state resources in other areas intended to prevent incarceration, but that “it would be irresponsible for the state not to set into motion plans to address future capacity concerns.”

Her proposal would fund the next two years of running the low-risk facility in Salem as the state faces a budget deficit that Legislative Fiscal Officer Ken Rocco said is $1.8 billion.

“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,” Brown spokesman Bryan Hockaday said in an email.

Yoshimoto said there are steps the state can take to reduce the prison population and avoid opening the new facility. She called for looking at changing or repealing Measure 57, a 2008 ballot measure that made sentencing requirements for some repeat offenders more strict.

“I think there are nonlegislative solutions that can have a more immediate impact on the women’s inmate population,” Yoshimoto said. “But if we’re talking about what are the drivers for women’s incarceration, it looks like Measure 57 and repeat property offenders is one of the drivers.”

— Reporter: 406-589-4347,

tanderson@bendbulletin.com

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