SALEM — The Oregon Emergency Board Wednesday denied a request by state corrections officials for $3.8 million to continue laying the groundwork for opening a second women’s prison in Oregon.
Lawmakers on the 20-member board said they want to see if efforts by the Department of Corrections and several counties can reduce the female inmate population enough to avoid opening the Oregon State Penitentiary Minimum in Salem, where the second women’s prison would be housed.
The Emergency Board could reconsider the request March 15.
“This isn’t a denial,” said Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton. “All we are doing is delaying the decision.”
The decision came amid backlash from justice reform advocates and others over DOC’s 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.
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.
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 could address overcrowding at Coffee Creek. Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, said Klamath and Multnomah counties also are in discussions with DOC to find ways to reduce the number of women at the prison.
Projections suggest the women’s population could increase by nearly 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.
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.”
Oregon State Penitentiary Minimum — an annex of the Oregon State Penitentiary — was mothballed in 2010 to save money during the recession.