Entire prison on quarantine, as COVID-19 hits staff, inmates

All the inmates at Snake River Correctional Institution, pictured here, are currently in quarantine due to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

ONTARIO — Eastern Oregon lawmakers are scrambling to put a halt on the early release by Gov. Kate Brown of some of the state’s prison population due to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

Although the list of about 80 inmates who may potentially be released will not be finalized until Monday, an Oregon Department of Corrections official has confirmed that there are 10 men on the list who are housed at Snake River Correctional Institution. However, it was further confirmed that none of those inmates are from Malheur County. Furthermore, of the 76 inmate names from throughout the state that Malheur County District Attorney David Goldthorpe received on June 15, none who are being considered are from Malheur County.

Despite the fact that nobody was from our area, the matter of early release does not sit well with Goldthorpe.

“It’s still an issue to me that someone can be sentenced, then have the governor say, ‘Nevermind, you get out,’” he said. “It doesn’t protect the victims … it just protects the state from liability. I’m not OK with that.”

He said the move made by Brown was purely a matter of saving money and not about human interest.

“This is being done because the state worries about liability. They’re worried that if a vulnerable person gets COVID, they are going to get sued,” Goldthorpe said. “I don’t like it, but it’s out of my control.”

The DA Association will put their input in on the matter, he said, but that is the extent of what they can do about it.

Governor’s request

Brown on June 12, sent a letter to ODOC director Colette Peters, asking for “a case-by-case analysis” of inmates who were “medically-vulnerable” to COVID-19.

Her letter stated that while ODOC “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’s letter indicates that ODOC medical staff must determine who is vulnerable. Those determinations will not be made public, Goldthorpe reminded, as HIPPA rules will not allow the release of information about what those health issues might be.

Other criteria included in Brown’s letter for inmates considered for early release include: they can not be serving a sentence for a crime against a person; at least 50% of their sentence must have been served; they must have a record of good conduct for 1 year; they must have a suitable housing plan; they must address out-of-custody health-care needs; and they cannot present a risk to the community.

Inmates who meet the criteria will have their sentences commuted by Brown and will have to take a COVID-19 test prior to their release. Those who have tested positive for the virus or who are displaying symptoms will not be eligible for release until they “no longer show symptoms and test negative.” At that point, their eligibility for commutation would resume, according to Brown.

Findley, Owens object

In a letter sent to Gov. Kate Brown on Wednesday, Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, and Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, expressed major concerns over the governor’s decision to release some of those who are vulnerable to the virus.

Findley and Owens districts include both the largest and smallest prisons in the state, including Snake River Correctional Institution, as well as prisons in Baker City, Madras and Lakeview.

“Granting early release from even a few adults in custody from any of these facilities would be detrimental to the surrounding community and support services,” reads the letter.

Vital community services, such as housing, medical care, parole supervision, mental health services, job training and others, are “already overwhelmed due to the COVID-19 pandemic” and unemployment numbers, according to the lawmakers.

Not all lawmakers object to the proposal. In fact, some would like to see more inmates released. On Monday, a group of state Democratic lawmakers pressed Brown to commute sentences of nearly 2,000 inmates (about 14% of the state’s prison population), according to The Oregonian, which noted that Brown had not responded to the request.

How would it impact community corrections?

The draft list of who could potentially get early release “is not finalized,” according to an email from Jennifer Black, communications manager for ODOC.

“We are still working to ensure those on the list qualify based on Governor Brown’s criteria,” she said, adding that the list wouldn’t be final until Monday.

Black did not provide a copy of the draft list to the Argus; however, confirmed 10 men housed at SRCI were on it.

In their letter, lawmakers say releasing inmates during a pandemic increases the likelihood of losing track of individuals who may need to be monitored upon release.

Due to the fact that some cases may be pending, Malheur County Circuit Court judges declined to comment on how the early release of prisoners might impact our court system.

As to whether it would make a great impact to Malheur County Community Corrections, it would depend on the number released.

According to Malheur County Sheriff’s Lt. Jim St. Michell, who oversees that department, “if it was a significant number it could potentially have a strain.”

He said the number of offenders that are on supervision varies on a regular basis. Moreover, when new offenders are coming over to be supervised St. Michell says “we are notified well in advance.”

As far as Brown’s plan goes, the lieutenant had the following to say: “I don’t support their early release.”

Reconnecting to communities

When it comes to reconnecting inmates to their former communities, there are a variety of areas SRCI focuses on to decrease recidivism.

Although not all prisons have a release counselor, there is one at SRCI, according to Amber Campbell, public information officer. At SRCI the focus is on those inmates who will be released to any county in the eastern portion of the state.

“Release Counselors work with Adults in Custody for their re-entry preparation and individualized release plan. These staff develop a plan to help individuals return to the community. They assist with basic needs like housing, employment, and medical and mental health care,” Campbell wrote in an email today. “DOC partners with the releasing AIC, county community corrections agencies, Oregon Board of Parole and Post-Prison Supervision, DOC medical and mental health professionals, state and federal agencies, and private providers.”

Other benefits inmates may receive prior to release, include getting assistance with Oregon Health Plan, Medicaid, veterans benefits, Social Security and state-issued identification through the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles, according to Campbell.

Findley and Owens say that, like Brown, their “hope is that all Oregonians are safe, healthy and well during this unique and challenging time.”

However, they say releasing inmates early will not prevent exposure, as the chance of getting the virus in the public “is just as great.”

In their final plea to Brown to reconsider her decision, the lawmakers ended the letter stating, “Our communities cannot provide the tools necessary for these individuals to succeed upon release at this time.”

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