The two new prison bosses in Umatilla County stressed public safety remains the top priority, but helping inmates not to re-offend is a major role.
And the more Oregon reduces recidivism, the safer the public is.
John Myrick, 49, began his career in the Oregon Department of Corrections as a prison officer for 25 years at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, Pendleton. On Monday he will become the latest boss to head up Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla. The prison houses more than 1,700 men in medium- and minimum-security facilities.
Jeri Taylor, 53, has been the superintendent of EOCI for about three weeks. The medium-security prison houses more than 1,600 men. Taylor has come full circle in her career, having started as a receptionist at the Pendleton prison in 1983 during its transition from a state mental hospital. Taylor also worked the floors of EOCI as a corrections officer, and like Myrick was promoted through the ranks. She even headed up Two Rivers before the corrections department shifted her to Pendleton and promoted Myrick.
Taylor comes in after a series of inmate brawls at EOCI led to several lockdowns. Oregon State Police continues to investigate who was involved in the fights, she said, which led to some changes.
Several fights took place in dining halls, which the prison operated much like a school cafeteria with a food line and rows of tables and chairs. The setup allowed groups of inmates to stake out their own tables, Taylor said, but the riots ended that. Now the dining halls have row seating, so inmates do not have a choice where they sit for a meal.
Thats meant more staff control and a safer dinning room, she said, and has encouraged more inmates to eat there. The revamp also has led to inmates getting in and out of the hall faster and being on time more often for education or other programs.
Myrick in 2007 became Two Rivers security group threat manager, the administrator in charge of dealing with gangs in the prison. He then transitioned into programs four years later. He was part of the administrative team that oversaw TRCI when four inmates died unexpectedly over the period of five months in late 2013 and early 2014. One man hanged himself, another overdosed on methamphetamine. The prison cannot put an officer in every cell, he said, but the deaths mean there was a failure.
You feel like you let people down when that happens, Myrick said, and that goes for inmate families as well as prison staff who deal with the immediate ramifications of a death.
The dual experiences of security and programming inform much of how Myrick sees commitment to the community and the reality of state prisons.
Ninety-four percent of these guys are going to be our neighbors someday, he said, so the question is what kind of neighbors do people want.
Oregons recidivism rate is 27.3 percent, according to the corrections department, one of the lowest rates in the country. The department defines recidivism as any new felony conviction within three years of release, so the figure is for inmates released in 2010.
Taylor said she knows the public wants law breakers to be punished, and some see that as putting inmates in a cell for 23 hours a day. But the punishment comes in the separation from family and friends, she said, from the state stripping away rights and dictating the minutia of a daily routines. Just locking up inmates makes for worse inmates.
Everything we can do to help provide a skill set to get them a leg up, well do, Taylor said, such as helping prisoners get state certification to handle food, which they take with them to the outside. The aim is to keep inmates from re-offending, she said, and from creating more victims.
Two Rivers began a program three years ago to let well-behaved inmates have picnics with their families outside on grass in a secured yard. The picnics help inmates strengthen relationship bonds and build family support systems, Myrick said, and those are crucial to an ex-cons success on the outside.
Myrick said the picnics need a couple more years before there is firm data, but he has seen inmates walk the line so they can have a relatively normal day with their family. Those family members also tell their loved ones inside to behave so they can participate again, Myrick said.
TRCI also plans to start an inmate dog training program, Myrick said, to help inmates acquire social skills. And he said he wants to expand volunteer work inside the prison.
But the scales always tip to the side of prison security, Myrick and Taylor said, for the staff inside and the public outside. Nothing else in a prison can happen without security as the foundation, they said.
The bottom line is, were going to manage these people, Taylor said, thats what we do.
Contact Phil Wright at email@example.com or 541-966-0833.