Oregon Gov. Kate Brown now says the Warner Creek Correctional Facility in rural Lake County will remain open.
In January, Brown announced the facility would be one of three minimum-security prisons she planned to close by July 2022, a move estimated to save $44 million.
“The long and short of it is, I’m making the decision at this time to not close your facility and to leave the decision to the next governor,” Brown told Lake County commissioners during a meeting Tuesday. Brown’s comments were met with applause.
More than 100 people work at the prison.
Lake County officials noted it’s difficult to attract new economic development and investments because the county is small and isolated. They said the prison provides more than $7 million that helps support schools and other businesses in the area.
“It really means a lot to the economy of Lakeview and Lake County,” he told OPB. “It would have been extremely difficult to find a comparable business to replace WCCF with that would bring similar jobs and stability to our schools and other businesses. With this decision, we hope to get other businesses on board here as it adds a level of stability to our local economy."
Part of the governor’s decision to keep the prison open was because of the effect it would’ve had on the county, Elizabeth Merah, a spokeswoman for Brown said in a statement.
“It is important to the Governor to balance criminal justice reform efforts with the real impacts to our smaller, rural communities,” Merah said. “Given the community impacts of closing Warner Creek, the Governor decided not to move forward with the closure of this facility.”
Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, acknowledged that closing prisons can be complex, especially in communities with few jobs. But, he added, there are better ways to invest in communities than through prisons.
“We should not live in a state where a community feels it necessary to celebrate the continued operation of a prison; we should not have to force our state or communities into such a binary of choosing the economics of the carceral system over the well-being and health of our fellow Oregonians,” he said.
Singh said Oregonians should work to “unwind the devastating impacts” of the criminal justice system, while also investing in new economies in places like Lake County.
The shuttering of two other prisons will move forward. The Mill Creek Correctional Facility in Salem is still set to close in July, and Shutter Creek Correctional Institution in North Bend is set to cease operations in January 2022.
In her statement to OPB, Merah repeated the same sentiment from January that Brown “ultimately would like to reduce our state’s reliance on incarceration and invest more dollars in the program areas that work to prevent people from entering the criminal justice system, such as behavioral health, education, housing, and substance use disorder recovery and treatment.”
Oregon operates 14 prisons across the state, with about 12,000 people behind bars.