PORTLAND, Ore. — Governor Kate Brown requested last week that the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC) provide her with a list of current prison inmates that could be released from custody in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Brown has previously refused calls to release inmates in response to the pandemic — but Oregon has seen a rise in new cases, and particularly workplace outbreaks, as many counties began reopening over the past several weeks.
Since the outbreak began, the DOC has reported 174 inmate cases and 49 staff cases of COVID-19. Most of those have been at the maximum-security Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. At the last weekly report from the Oregon Health Authority, it remained the largest workplace outbreak in the state. One inmate died in custody last month after contracting the virus.
Most of these cases are now considered recovered, but at least 60 remain active.
In the letter DOC director Colette Peters, Brown acknowledged the ongoing challenge of enforcing social distancing in a prison setting.
"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 said. "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."
Brown asked that the DOC begin a "case-by-case" analysis of inmates who are vulnerable to the coronavirus and meet several criteria for possible commutation:
- Be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, as identified by DOC medical staff.
- Not be serving a sentence for a person crime.
- Have served at least 50% of their sentence.
- Have a record of good conduct for the last 12 months.
- Have a suitable housing plan.
- Have their out-of-custody health care needs assessed and adequately addressed.
- Not present an unacceptable safety, security, or compliance risk to the community.
An inmate listed as eligible for commutation will have to take a COVID-19 test before they are released. If they have symptoms or test positive for the virus, they'll be considered ineligible until they can be isolated.
"Once an adult in custody no longer shows symptoms and tests negative for COVID-19, they will resume eligibility for commutation," Brown's letter stated.
The DOC will have to notify crime victims of an inmate's release if they are approved for commutation.
On Monday, Democrats in the Oregon legislature released a statement saying that the plan to release inmates stemmed from members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, and had been approved by the Governor earlier this month.
“We are very pleased with this as a first step,” said Representative Janelle Bynum, D-Happy Valley, chair of the House Committee on Judiciary. “These are people with serious medical conditions, and the overly-congested conditions of our prisons can be a death sentence for them. The appropriate humanitarian response would be to release them as soon as possible.”
The Oregon Justice Resource Center said the governor’s decision is long overdue.
“Governor Brown has now recognized what we have been saying for months: COVID-19 poses a serious threat to the health of all who live and work in Oregon’s prisons. Prisons are not an environment where it is possible to achieve the physical distancing needed to reduce the spread of disease unless we reduce the number of people incarcerated,” said Bobbin Singh, executive director of the OJRC.