Almost five years ago, WW highlighted a trend in Oregon prisons that had gotten little attention up to that point. While the population of male offenders had grown in the past 10 years, the female population of prisoners had grown far more.
Between 2007 and 2015, female intakes increased nearly 22 percent, while the rate for men increased 2.5 percent, according to the state Criminal Justice Commission.
That increase came with a warning. Oregon's prison for women, Coffee Creek, was nearing capacity. The state might have to open a second one.
The Department of Corrections was poised to ask the Emergency Board of the legislature to help it do just that by allocating an additional $5.2 million to reopen the Oregon State Penitentiary Minimum facility for women. That would have been on top of $1 million that was already set aside for the opening.
Coffee Creek is now over capacity, the state says. It can safely house 1,280 women. As of Sept. 1, it actually housed 1,305. Meaning the state wanted to open a new prison to accommodate 25 more women.
On Thursday, Colette Peters, the corrections director, announced that her department is holding off on the request with the hope that other measures, including a program called Justice Reinvestment, will further hold down inmate population growth.
Justice Reinvestment, a partnership with counties, aims to keep people out of prison by diverting money from the Department of Corrections to programs that help offenders stay in their communities.
"The delay of our OSPM funding request is solely based on our commitment to Justice Reinvestment, and not based on need," Peters wrote in a statement to other law enforcement partners. "We have been over the threshold for opening OSPM since May 18, and we have utilized all of our temporary and emergency beds at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility. All of you know the safety and security concerns that come with this, as well as the stress on my front-line officers."
She added: "Unless we see some relief with the women's population, we are ultimately going to have to make a funding request to open OSPM."
That request could come as soon as December.
Peters' announcement followed a period of lobbying by sentencing-reform advocates, who feared that opening another facility would fuel Oregon's prison growth at a time when it's trying to reverse that trend.
Shannon Wight, deputy director at one such group, the Partnership for Safety and Justice, called the DOC's decision Thursday a "temporary reprieve."
"Even they make it clear that if we don't do justice differently, they will have to open a new prison," she wrote in a statement. "Oregon is at a critical juncture: do we continue to use prisons as our default response to crime, or do we commit to curbing racial disparities, investing in community-based programs, and advancing effective public safety solutions?"