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Gov. Brown plans early release of inmates to limit COVID-19 risk

The decision marks a turning point for the governor who has previously refused to release inmates in response to the pandemic. Inmates must meet certain criteria.
Credit: DANIELLE PETERSON / Statesman Journal
The Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.

PORTLAND, Ore. — In a letter sent Friday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown requested the Department of Corrections identify inmates who should be considered for early release due to the COVID-19 safety risks associated with the state’s prison system.

The request marks a turning point for the governor who has previously refused to release inmates in response to the pandemic and comes as Oregon faces a spike of coronavirus cases. In the letter to the director of the DOC, Brown recognized the overwhelming challenge of enforcing social distancing in a prison setting.

The Oregon Justice Resource Center said the governor’s decision is long overdue.

“Governor Brown has now recognized what we have been saying for months: COVID-19 poses a serious threat to the health of all who live and work in Oregon’s prisons. Prisons are not an environment where it is possible to achieve the physical distancing needed to reduce the spread of disease unless we reduce the number of people incarcerated,” said Bobbin Singh, executive director of the OJRC.

According to data from the state, as of June 11, 174 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, including one person who died. Forty-nine staff members have also tested positive. Most of those cases can be linked to the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, where 139 inmates and 36 staff members have tested positive for the virus. The Oregon Health Authority has labeled the outbreak at the penitentiary as the largest active workplace outbreak.

RELATED: These 24 Oregon workplaces have active COVID-19 outbreaks

Brown said inmates must meet all the following requirements to be considered for commutation:

  • Be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, as identified by DOC medical staff.
  • Not be serving a sentence for a person crime.
  • Have served at least 50% of their sentence.
  • Have a record of good conduct for the last 12 months.
  • Have a suitable housing plan.
  • Have their out-of-custody health care needs assessed and adequately addressed.
  • Not present an unacceptable safety, security, or compliance risk to the community.

“In no case may an adult in custody be released if they present an unacceptable safety, security, or compliance risk to the community,” Brown said.

The governor asked the director of the DOC for a list of eligible inmates by June 22. A spokesperson told The Oregonian/OregonLive about 100 inmates meet the governor’s requirements.  

Inmates eligible for commutation will be required to take a COVID-19 test before being released. If a person shows symptoms or tests positive for the virus, they’ll be ineligible for released and immediately isolated. Once that person no longer shows symptoms and tests negative for the virus, they will again be eligible for early release, Brown said.

RELATED: By the numbers: A look at Oregon’s recent COVID-19 spike