Oregon Prison Inmates Promised Early Release Due to COVID-19 Are Still Waiting

DOC says the holdup is finding appropriate housing for those released early.

Coffee Creek Correctional Facility (Leah Nash)

13: That's the number of Oregon prison inmates who were promised early release due to COVID-19 but are still behind bars.

How long they've been waiting: between four and 10 weeks.

The reason: housing.

On Sept. 29, Gov. Kate Brown announced she had commuted the sentences of 66 Oregon inmates considered medically vulnerable to the virus or who were within two months of release.

WW has learned two of the 66—both of whom the state determined to be "medically vulnerable"—have still not been released and their release date is unknown. That means they've been incarcerated for 10 weeks past the date the governor announced their commutations.

Similarly, 11 inmates housed at Mill Creek Correctional Facility in Salem, most of whom were told their sentences would be commuted Nov. 19, are still awaiting release after multiple delays. Last month, their release date was pushed back to Nov. 25. Then it was delayed a second time. Nine of the 11 are medically vulnerable, according to  the Oregon Department of Corrections.

DOC says the holdup is finding appropriate housing for those released early.

"Safe, affordable and felon-friendly housing has been an enormous hurdle for release planning," DOC spokeswoman Jennifer Black tells WW. "Leadership at the Department of Corrections takes public safety very seriously and has committed to thorough review of each adult-in-custody file before forwarding to the governor for consideration of commutation. The work of meticulously reviewing the files of those under consideration is a significant undertaking for the agency."

The difficulty in finding housing will likely be a sticking point going forward: Gov. Brown announced Dec. 2 she had expanded the pool of inmates whose sentences could be commuted during the pandemic to those within six months of release (before, it was inmates within two months of release who had not been convicted of dangerous crimes, as well as those considered medically vulnerable).

The guessing game can be draining on inmates and their families, says Diana Bouvia, the wife of a man incarcerated at Mill Creek for delivery of methamphetamine.

Mark Bouvia, 62, was told he'd be released Nov. 19. He is considered medically vulnerable: He has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to his wife, as well as scar tissue on his lungs from an injury he got as a teenager.

In October, Diana Bouvia says, corrections staff showed up at her home, where she lives with her two adult children, to assess whether it met the state's criteria. "All good," she recalls the corrections staff telling her after the inspection.

The following month, Bouvia says, her husband received another notice: His release date was delayed to Nov. 25 (she provided WW a copy of this notice).

As Thanksgiving approached, his wife says, the department took Mark Bouvia off his work detail, gave him a coronavirus test for which he tested negative, and assigned him a parole officer. (DOC says Bouvia's release date was pushed to December because his housing wasn't approved until mid-October.)

"He had something to look forward to," Diana Bouvia says, "and just to have the rug pulled out from under you…it's awful."

DOC now tells WW it expects to release many of the Mill Creek inmates in mid- to late December: Eight on Dec. 17, one on Dec. 23, and another on Dec. 30—four to six weeks past their initial release date of Nov. 19. Black added that release dates are "projected"—not set in stone.

"Oh God, that would be a miracle," Bouvia said when WW told her DOC says it plans to release the inmates by the end of the month. "You worry so much about the COVID. You know they're right next to each other."

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