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Budget Crisis Closes Oregon Prison for First Time in 159 Years

Oregon prison officials recently proved that desperate times truly do call for desperate measures, as the state closed a prison for the first time since opening its first correctional facility in 1851 – nine years before Oregon became a state.

Since the 1985-87 biennium, the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) “has increased expenditures by 209 percent,” according to state officials. ODOC “now accounts for 53 percent of all public safety spending.” [See: PLN, Dec. 2011, p.44].

ODOC’s current 2-year budget of $1.26 billion has soared 250 percent in the last two decades according to former Governor Theodore Kulongoski. That “number ... is expected to grow at an unsustainable rate if we continue the policies in place today,” Kulongoski said.

“Over the past twenty years, Oregon has more than doubled the number of offenders incarcerated in the state corrections system – largely through the adoption of mandatory minimum sentencing structures by the voters,” a Public Safety Subcommittee noted. Now the state cannot afford to run all the prisons it has built.

One of the last to come on-line was the $120 million Deer Ridge Correctional Institution (DRCI) in the small high desert town of Madras, Oregon. Built to hold 1,872 prisoners – 644 minimum security and 1,228 medium security – the medium security beds have sat empty since DRCI opened in 2007. In September 2010, 65 percent of the prison’s bed space remained vacant, and plans to open the medium security beds have been postponed until at least 2013.

In mid-2010, ODOC Director and former state senator Max Williams joined Kulongoski in vowing not to close any prisons. However, they quickly broke that promise on October 29, 2010 when they closed a 176-bed minimum-security prison in Salem, Oregon as part of a $2.5 million budget cut. “This is a major event,” said Mike Gower, an ODOC assistant director. “We are closing a prison.”

That facility first opened in 1964 as the Oregon Women’s Correctional Center (OWCC), just outside the 25-foot gray walls of the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP), Oregon’s oldest and only maximum-security prison.

When overcrowding forced ODOC to move women prisoners to the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility (CCCF) in 2001, OWCC became OSP-Minimum, a men’s facility for prisoners on work crews or in substance abuse treatment programs. OSP-Minimum prisoners also raised food in the prison’s garden, including 13,000 pounds of produce donated to local food banks in 2010.

Closing OSP-Minimum was part of a move to eliminate 76 ODOC positions department-wide. None of the last 120 OSP-Minimum prisoners were released early, so they had to be transferred to other facilities. The closure also prematurely ended substance abuse treatment for about 50 prisoners.

Williams informed ODOC’s 4,400 employees of the layoffs in a September 29, 2010 email. A “bumping” procedure allowed the 35 OSP-Minimum staff to transfer to other facilities and take positions held by employees with less seniority.

Thirteen of the 76 positions slated for elimination were already vacant, so a total of 63 employees were laid off. Those included nine DRCI employees who were hired in anticipation of opening the facility’s medium security beds. The Inspector General’s office, which oversees ODOC’s Special Investigations Unit (i.e. Internal Affairs), also lost three employees. Williams told staff members that it was “worth noting that we have been careful to ensure that position eliminations are distributed among both represented and non-represented staff, from both institutions and administrative offices.”

The 2011-2013 draft budget of Oregon’s new Governor, John Kitzhaber, raised the unlikely possibility of closing an-other six minimum-security prisons. This would require the adoption of some form of early release authority or significant sentencing reform, according to a budget note. The closures would have released 2,561 prisoners in order to maintain a prison population – which now exceeds 14,000 – of about 12,000 prisoners.
The move also would have eliminated 682 ODOC staff positions statewide.

The final state budget did not include any additional prison closures, though it did include some modest staff cuts, including 72 prison medical positions. The ODOC’s biennial budget for 2011-2013 was set at $1.3 billion. “This is as tight a budget as we’ve ever been given,” said Williams.

ODOC officials still remain hopeful that the governor and legislative leaders will allow them to re-open OSP-Minimum. If so, they plan to convert it back into a women’s facility to ease potential overcrowding at CCCF. However, another $9 million in savings may be realized by keeping the facility shuttered during the 2011-13 budget cycle, according to ODOC projections.

A prisoner work crew has been performing maintenance and repairs at OSP¬-Minimum in anticipation of reactivating the facility.

Optimistic prison officials have ordered staff to keep the mothballed prison ready to re-open within two weeks of any reactivation decision, said Physical Plant Manager Roger Gilbertson.

“I think, on my end, it can be ready in four or five days,” said Gilbertson. He also noted that he had carried out orders from his supervisors to keep tight control on all OSP-Minimum property.
“From a fiscal standpoint, I was told to be very protective and not let anybody have anything,” said Gilbertson. “I did that. I didn’t make a lot of friends.”

Sources: The Oregonian, Statesman Journal

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