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Oregon Holds Off on Funding Second Women's Prison

Coffee Creek Correction Facility is currently the only women's prison in Oregon. (M.O. Stevens)
Coffee Creek Correction Facility is currently the only women's prison in Oregon. (M.O. Stevens)
September 19, 2016

SALEM, Ore. — The Oregon Department of Corrections has decided to hold off on a request for an additional $5 million from the Legislature's Emergency Board to open a second women's prison in the state.

The D.O.C. wanted to open a new minimum-security facility for women because of overcrowding at Coffee Creek, which was about 25 prisoners over capacity in September. Since 2007, the rate of imprisonment for women in Oregon has increased by 22 percent, while the rate for men is up just two percent.

According to Shannon Wight, deputy director at the Partnership for Safety and Justice, many women are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.

"In 2015, nearly 70 percent of the women who were sent to prison were sent for drug and property offenses,” Wight said. "And when we look at those numbers, we think that's a population that we could look more closely at, and resource counties to serve them differently than to send them to prison."

Wight added that it's important to remember mothers are often custodial parents, and children are usually sent to foster care when a parent is incarcerated.

Oregon passed the Family Sentencing Alternative in 2015. The program was created to help keep families together when custodial parents have been arrested, while maintaining strict supervision over the parents.

Corrections Director Colette Peters has said she hopes other programs - like Justice Reinvestment, which partners with counties to help offenders stay in their communities - will reduce the prison population.

Wight acknowledged Peters and the D.O.C. are caught between a rock and hard place. There are safety concerns when prisons are overcrowded, but the department has no means for reducing the prison population.

"So, they have one tool in their tool chest, really, and that's to build a new prison,” Wight said. "I think it's incumbent on us on the other end of this - legislators, prosecutors, community corrections - to help stop the flow of folks to prison and look at other kinds of programs."

Wight said the decision is a temporary stay, and the D.O.C. could ask again for funding for a new women's prison as soon as December.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - OR