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'So many things we can do better': More than 2 years after leaving prison, Oregon woman advocates for prison reform for women

KGW met Vanessa Sherrod in 2019 as part of our in-depth series "LIFE Inside". Earlier this month, she testified in favor of a bill aimed at changing the system.

PORTLAND, Ore. — More than two years after leaving Oregon's only women's prison, Vanessa Sherrod logged onto Zoom and yet again told her story to strangers.

"I, like most women at Coffee Creek, entered the prison system after causing harm to others. I, like most women at Coffee Creek, am also a person who has experienced harm," Sherrod said earlier this month during a public hearing with Oregon state lawmakers.

Sherrod, who was released in late 2019 after serving roughly five years for theft, was testifying in favor of House Bill 4146.

If it passes, it would direct Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to hire a "gender responsive coordinator" to meet with women at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville. That person would spend months, if not years, examining whether changes are needed to better rehabilitate women. The coordinator would then present an assessment to state lawmakers, no later than Sept. 1, 2024.

Sherrod said the assessment is needed. The prison model, she said in an interview Monday, was invented for men and doesn't adjust for challenges specific to women. For instance, women with children are often the sole custodial parent. Once incarcerated, Sherrod said, they have little access to the court cases that decide what happens to their kids.

"A lot of moms miss their court dates. And how does that look like when they're not able to show up for their child's court case? There's just so many things in place and so many moving wheels that you have to have someone who's literally involved from the beginning," she said.

Credit: KGW
Vanessa Sherrod at the Oregon State Capitol in February 2020

She noted other women in prison after enduring domestic violence are given no help filing charges or protective orders against their abusers. At the end of their sentences, some are released back into the same area where their abuser lives.

"I knew one lady who was getting released to a hotel, because she didn't have any housing in place," Sherrod said. "She was gonna get released to a hotel where her offender lived. Imagine how that could have turned out."

In that instance, she added, a nonprofit program stepped in and helped the woman find a different home. Sherrod argues protections like that should be the state's standard.

Another issue that needs addressing, she said, is that of sexual harassment and assault within the prison system. Women at Coffee Creek, she said, don't know what to do or who to turn to if issues related to that arise. Sherrod noted she couldn't say for sure that harassment and assault are common within Oregon's prisons.

"I've heard a lot of stories, you know," she said. "That's the whole reason why we would need to get the assessment done, right? So then we would see, you know? If those issues are prevalent, then they would be brought to surface."

Sherrod’s testimony at that Feb. 1 hearing was followed by that of a representative for the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC). Acting Assistant Director Kelly Raths told lawmakers the DOC "welcomes" the assessment.

"Such an assessment for women's correctional services exists," Raths noted in her written testimony. "The National Institute of Corrections, in partnership with national experts, developed a formal assessment to study issues specific to women in custody and on community supervision."

When reached for further comment Monday, a DOC spokesperson referred KGW back to that Feb. 1 testimony.

Halfway through Oregon's short session, HB 4146 is progressing through the legislature, with lawmakers Friday assigning it to the Ways and Means Committee.

Sherrod, at the same time, is proud of her own progress.

KGW first met Sherrod in 2019, as part of our in-depth series "LIFE Inside", which profiled three women preparing to leave Coffee Creek after enrolling in a small business course offered by Mercy Corps Northwest.


Sherrod told KGW then that she wanted to dedicate her life to criminal justice reform. Upon her release, she hit the ground running. She's since gotten an associate's degree in social work and now works as a "peer wellness specialist coordinator" for the YWCA. She's a regular in Salem, championing legislation aimed at changing the way Oregon's prisons operate.

Her three kids, whom KGW met last summer when Sherrod was campaigning for another bill, are proud of their mom.

"It blows my mind," Sherrod said Monday. "I get, do that and network and share my story, but also share the stories of other women that I constantly work with and get to hear the things that they struggle in and things that still are a problem and how the systems just aren't working. There's so many things that we can do better. We can be better and we can do better.”

KGW on Monday also reached out to the other two women featured in "LIFE Inside", Amy and Myriah. We haven't heard back yet.

Sherrod is also preparing for the annual Day of Empathy, aimed at helping families and kids of incarcerated men and women. It's a local version of a national movement, and this year, it's set for March 30.

You can find more info here or email yourchampionvoice@gmail.com.

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