Jay Inslee Released Many Nonviolent Offenders to Stem the Spread of COVID-19. Kate Brown Hasn’t Yet.

The number of prisoners released is likely to fall short of allowing for effective social distancing in Oregon prisons.

On Aug. 25, Gov. Kate Brown asked Oregon Department of Corrections director Colette Peters to compile another list of prisoners whose sentences could be commuted because they are medically vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus.

This is the second time Brown has asked DOC to compile such a list. In the previous compilation, corrections identified 61 inmates who met Brown's criteria for release, which included medical vulnerability to COVID-19, good conduct for the past 12 months, and serving a sentence for a nonviolent crime. Of those 61, Brown commuted 57 sentences on June 25.

That's 1,043 fewer prisoners than Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee released to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Oregon incarcerated approximately 14,200 inmates before the pandemic, whereas Washington imprisoned 17,845. This means Oregon has released 0.4% of its prison population while Washington released 6.16%.

In contrast to Brown's criteria, Inslee in April commuted the sentences of all prisoners convicted of nonviolent offenses whose release dates fell prior to June 29, 2020. That seemed to increase the pool of candidates for early release significantly.

Now, Brown has adopted similar criteria for the second list of prisoners: medically vulnerable, nonviolent offenders, as well as those within two months of release. That means Oregon's commutations could increase significantly.

Brown gave DOC a Sept. 18 deadline to identify all adults in custody who fit her new criteria.

The announcement that Brown intends to commute more sentences lands near the end of the deadliest month in Oregon prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic. Four Oregon prisoners died in August: three at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton, and one at Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario. More than 600 inmates and nearly 200 staff currently have COVID-19, according to corrections data.

Brown's office says several factors prompted it to identify more prisoners to release early.

"Given what we know about the pervasiveness of COVID-19 in our communities—and particularly the challenges it presents to those who are medically vulnerable—as well as the limits to DOC's ability to practice physical distancing inside correctional settings, the governor has asked DOC for an ongoing analysis of adults in custody for consideration of early release," spokeswoman Liz Merah said in an email to WW.

Still, the number of prisoners released is likely to fall short of allowing for effective social distancing in Oregon prisons. The corrections report from April determined that, in order to practice adequate social distancing, the department would need to reduce the state's prison population by 40%, or 5,800 inmates.

Prison rights advocates see a grim future if dramatic changes aren't made. Following the fifth COVID-19 death of an Oregon prisoner on Aug. 26, Oregon Justice Resource Center's executive director said the state has already failed to adequately protect the health of those who are incarcerated.

"We are seeing the consequences of our state's choice to do as little as possible to mitigate the risk of harm from COVID-19 within our prisons," OJRC executive director Bobbin Singh said in a statement. "Choices were available that may have prevented the five deaths we have now seen of incarcerated Oregonians who had COVID when they died.…We must accept reality, which is that Oregon is currently failing its incarcerated residents and their loved ones."

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