Gov. Kate Brown on Friday, June 12, told the Oregon Department of Corrections director to review inmates for possible release to limit the spread of coronavirus in the state prison system.
Brown asked the department to perform “a case-by-case analysis” of inmates who are vulnerable to the virus and outlined a list of criteria for possible commutation. An agency spokeswoman said about 100 inmates meet the governor’s criteria.
The Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem is the largest coronavirus outbreak in the state. The latest count as of Thursday shows 139 inmates there have tested positive, with several dozen staff members also diagnosed with the virus, the department reported. Many inmates have balked at testing out of fear they will be transferred to an even more restrictive setting so the number of cases may underrepresent the actual state of the disease in the prison.
The governor’s criteria includes inmates who are “particularly vulnerable” to the disease, those who have not been convicted of a crime against another person and those who have served at least half of their sentences.
Potential candidates for commutation must have a good conduct record for the past 12 months and a “suitable housing plan” for release, she said in her letter to Colette Peters, Oregon’s corrections chief.
“In no case may an adult in custody be released if they present an unacceptable safety, security, or compliance risk to the community,” she wrote.
Brown told Peters to provide her with the names of eligible inmates by June 22.
“While DOC acted quickly to meet the threat presented by COVID-19, there are limits to the department’s ability to implement physical distancing in a correctional setting,” Brown wrote. “Given what we now know about the disease and its pervasiveness in our communities, it is appropriate to release individuals who face significant health challenges should they contract COVID-19.”
In a statement, Peters said she has reviewed the letter from the governor.
“I appreciate the governor ensuring those she considers for commutation have community resources, as it relates to housing and medical care,” she said. "We will work closely with our community public safety and public health partners throughout this process to protect the public to the best of our ability.”
The Oregon District Attorneys Association issued a statement Friday saying it has "significant public safety concerns about prison inmates being released prior to the completion of their sentences."
The group said early releases undermine “truth in sentencing, discounts the safety and security of victims who trusted in a sentence handed down by the court and erodes public confidence in a justice system’s accountability for felony lawbreakers.”
It’s not the first time Brown has floated the idea of releasing inmates in response to the pandemic. Early on, she sought similar information from the prison system but then backed away from approving a large-scale release.
The governor has continued to face pressure from advocacy organizations to address the threat the virus poses to inmates and corrections staff.
Before release, inmates will be required to take a coronavirus test. Anyone with symptoms of the illness or who has tested positive is ineligible until they have recovered.
Bobbin Singh, executive director of the nonprofit Oregon Justice Resource Center, is among those who have advocated for early release. He called Brown’s letter a “step in the right direction.”
He said he wants to see the governor expand the criteria for release to include people who committed person-to-person crimes. He said many have served long sentences and may be close to release.
“At this point, the most important thing is it’s a recognition that in order to protect people, we do need to reduce the population,” he said.
Earlier this month, a federal judge denied a preliminary injunction sought by seven Oregon inmates, finding the state’s prison system has not shown “deliberate indifference’’ to their well-being during the course of the pandemic.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie F. Beckerman wrote in her opinion that the most effective protection is to reduce the prison population by releasing vulnerable inmates early if they do not pose a safety risk -- a step she said she lacked authority to direct.
"Only the Governor has that power,'' she wrote.
Beckerman noted that state has identified 2,584 inmates as scheduled for release within six months and 666 others who are considered "vulnerable'' to the coronavirus and who are serving time for non-Measure 11 offenses. None had been released early by the state as of June 1, though the majority of them aren’t in prison for person-against-person crimes, the judge said.
"It’s clear that there are medically vulnerable individuals in custody who could go home a few weeks or a few months early without a risk to public safety,'' Beckerman wrote in her 42-page ruling.
The state penitentiary remains the single largest workplace outbreak in Oregon, with 175 cases between inmates and staff combined. The cases at Oregon’s only maximum-security prison have slowed significantly, though the entire population remains in quarantine conditions.
Three other prisons have confirmed cases. Shutter Creek Correctional Institution in North Bend had 25 cases among inmates but this week state public health officials declared the outbreak there “resolved.” Santiam Correctional Institution in Salem has nine cases and Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla has one.
Social distancing poses a challenge in prisons and jails, where people live in close quarters and where, studies show, the population in general tends to be sicker. Oregon is also home to an aging prison population -- it houses among the highest percentages of prisoners ages 55 and older in the country, according to a 2018 study by Pew Charitable Trusts.