Racial disparities are embedded in all aspects of Oregon life, but incarceration rates are particularly jarring: Black Oregonians are imprisoned at a rate almost four times that of white people.
State prison data shows that as of April 2020, there were 307 white people imprisoned per 100,000 population. That number for Black people? It’s 1,126 per 100,000, 3.7 times more than their white counterparts.
The data covers all age demographics and was reported to the Vera Institute of Justice, a national nonprofit, by the Oregon Department of Corrections in 2020. Vera Institute senior research associate Jacob Kang-Brown calculated the rates using the latest population estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau. He says the figures should alarm everyone.
“What it boils down to is 1% of Black people in Oregon are in the state prison system. Oregon is bad, but you see this elsewhere,” Kang-Brown says. “Anytime you see this data, it’s a cause for concern.”
Since George Floyd was murdered in May 2020 by a Minneapolis police officer, protests have shifted public opinion and police reform bills have passed in waves—including in Oregon. But much of the change hasn’t trickled down to inmates already locked up.
“It’s the first time I’ve heard elected officials say ‘white supremacy’ and ‘structural racism’ out loud, but the actions they’ve taken haven’t been consistent with that rhetoric,” says Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center. “I think that’s especially true for those who are incarcerated.”
He says Oregon still has a long way to go. Elected officials and leaders need to openly acknowledge how the state’s history of racist exclusion and disparate policing has led to a generation behind bars.
“Prisons and the criminal legal system are designed to control and dominate certain populations,” Singh says. “We have to be honest, even if it causes discomfort, about what these systems are rooted in and also be willing to openly acknowledge how we’ve been complicit in sustaining these structures. That’s a hard reality for folks.”
This reporting has been funded in part by a grant from the Jackson Foundation. See more Black and White in Oregon stories here.