Oregon prisons lack oversight, critics say, with agency failing to track key data

An advocacy group has called for more accountability and oversight in a report on the Coffee Creek women’s prison, and Gov. Kotek said the agency needs to be more transparent

By: - August 8, 2023 6:00 am

The Oregon Department of Corrections needs more transparency, say advocates and the office of Gov. Tina Kotek. Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem in June 2022. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Inside the secure walls of Oregon’s state prisons, officials keep a mountain of records on  the health and safety of the 12,000-inmate system.

Prison security staffers are required to complete a report each time they administer naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal medication. Reports also are filed when prisons go on lockdown. And when inmates submit grievances and complaints about correctional officers, paperwork is required.

But the Oregon Department of Corrections, with a budget over $1 billion a year, is not tracking the scope of the problems within prisons or able to provide the public and families of inmates meaningful information about some prison conditions, a Capital Chronicle investigation has found. 

Corrections officials say they do not have information on the number of complaints filed against corrections staffers, how often a prison goes on lockdown or how often inmates suffer opioid overdoses. In email exchanges over the past two weeks, the agency’s communications staff said it does not track data for those areas.

Asked about the agency’s opaqueness, Elisabeth Shepard, a spokeswoman for Gov. Tina Kotek’s office said: “The governor believes DOC needs more transparency.”

The corrections agency’s inability or unwillingness to track that information is a symptom of a bigger problem: a lack of accountability and meaningful oversight, said Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center.  

“You basically have an agency that has really no oversight at the state level, meaningful oversight, and the conditions are not good,” he said in an interview. “There are staff shortages. There’s resource shortages that are occurring, and that all trickles out to, unfortunately, harm and lack of care for people in custody.”

Women at Coffee Creek detail mistreatment

The nonprofit center recently published a report based upon the accounts of women incarcerated at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, who say they have been neglected and mistreated. Lifers in the Wilsonville prison, Oregon’s only one for women, say the conditions are the worst they’ve seen, according to the 43-page report about the state’s only female prison in the Oregon Department of Corrections system. The 508,000-square-foot facility, located on 108 acres, currently has about 870 female inmates.

Staff with the center’s Women’s Justice Project, which works with women in the prison and advocates on their behalf, documented their stories and spoke to them directly in 2022. In their entirety, the accounts paint a picture of a harsh institution with frequent lockdowns, seemingly arbitrary punishments for minor infractions and women surviving day-to-day surrounded by chaos. The details also show grim conditions even after the fade of the COVID-19 pandemic, which put prisons on lockdowns to slow the spread of the virus.

“I was closer to killing myself this last summer than during the 20 years that I’ve been here,” one woman incarcerated at the prison said in the report.

Another woman told advocates that self-harm is the most common type of emergency that causes lockdowns.

“There’s a lot of overdoses, at least one every other week,” one inmate said.

In a statement to the Capital Chronicle, Oregon Department of Corrections acting Director Heidi Steward said she is reviewing the report and that there is always room for improvement.

We are committed to making prisons safe and secure while humanizing our environment and providing quality treatment and programming,” Steward said.

Steward said employees at the agency work tirelessly.

“We will continue to work towards positive outcomes for all those who live and work in our institutions,” Steward said.

Shepard, Kotek’s spokeswoman, said the governor’s office will work with the Department of Corrections after the state completes an assessment that looks at policies, procedures and conditions at Coffee Creek. In 2022, state lawmakers allocated $500,000 for the project.

Our office will be collaborating closely with DOC to implement those recommendations,” Shepard said.

Director unwilling to share data

Steward was appointed the agency’s acting director in August 2022, when former director Colette Peters left to head up the federal Bureau of Prisons.

An agency employee since 1996, Steward became a deputy director in 2019. That same year, Steward declined to provide a state lawmaker with data in response to a question, according to allegations in a whistleblower lawsuit.

The lawsuit, filed in 2021 against the agency by agency employees Gina Raney-Eatherly and Merilee Nowak, alleged they faced retaliation when they raised concerns about the use of grant money and the accuracy of legislative testimony. A Marion County jury found their case credible and awarded them $2.4 million in April.

In one account in the lawsuit, Steward and Peters testified to a legislative committee in March 2019 about the agency’s operations, including treatment programs for inmates. One lawmaker – the late Sen. Jackie Winters – asked whether adults who successfully completed treatment programs stayed out of prison or reoffended and returned. Winters, R-Salem, died of lung cancer two months later in May 2019.

Steward told Winters the agency lacks researchers to provide that data, the lawsuit said. But the next day, Raney-Eatherly, who headed up the agency’s research unit, told Steward they could fulfill Winters’ request, but Steward wasn’t interested, the lawsuit said.

“Ms. Steward stated that she did not want this data provided to Senator Winters, and instead planned to provide a written response describing DOC’s lack of sufficient resources to comply with the request,” the lawsuit said.

A few days later, the department sent lawmakers on the committee, including Winters, a letter that said exactly that, public legislative records  show.

“Due to the lack of sufficient resources within our research unit, it has not been possible to conduct an in-depth analysis of our treatment programs to determine program effectiveness,” the letter said, adding that the agency is working on a monitoring tool that eventually would have high-level data.

In a statement to the Capital Chronicle, Steward said: “I stand behind my answer to the Legislature and reject any allegations of misleading the late Senator Jackie Winters.” 

Advocates: More accountability and oversight needed

The Oregon Department of Corrections needs more accountability and legislative oversight that digs deeply into the agency, Singh said. The center has pushed unsuccessfully in the past for a legislative subcommittee to focus on corrections. 

Singh said the lack of oversight and accountability translates into a lack of meaningful data. His organization put in a public records request to get information about lockdowns after hearing about random and arbitrary incidents.

The agency’s response, he said, was that reports for lockdowns are usually written or paper documents and there’s no way to track them. 

“When you talk about lack of oversight, how is it that you can have a situation in which people are being locked in their cells, effectively experiencing solitary confinement, and there’s no way to track how often that’s happening or there’s not even a curiosity by the Department of Corrections to actually want to know that information?” he said. “I think that’s problematic.”

The Oregon Department of Corrections gave a similar reply when the Capital Chronicle asked about the three longest lockdowns at Coffee Creek for May and June.

“That would take an extensive manual search of our files,” Betty Bernt,  the agency’s communications manager, wrote in an email.

The agency also didn’t provide a total figure for lockdowns.

“This information comes from different sources and (is) not tracked comprehensively,” Bernt said in an email.

Women report rise in overdoses

Women at the prison have reported increases in drug use, self-harm, discipline and attempts at suicide and other mental health crises, the report said.

“There is a heavy sense that the lows reached during the pandemic have become the new norm,” the report said, adding that the women “share their stories with a sense of urgency and hope that by speaking out, their plight will escape the darkness of prison and somehow spur change.”

The frequency of overdoses resembles a rise of drug addiction in Oregon’s city streets. Oregon public health officials track opioid overdoses, including visits to hospital emergency rooms and clinics for treatment. That information is available: The public can view the number of overdose hospital visits and deaths.

In prisons, it’s a different picture. 

The Oregon Department of Corrections uses naloxone nasal spray to reverse overdoses. An agency policy since 2019 requires workers who use naloxone spray to complete a report with details that include the data and time, circumstances that led to the overdose and other details, records show.

When the Capital Chronicle asked about overdose figures at Coffee Creek, the agency said: “We don’t have specific data on (the) number of overdoses.”

Officials also did not say how many times staff have completed the agency’s required reports for overdose treatments.

“While each instance of deploying naloxone is recorded and reported, we do not have a data tracking system,” Bernt said in an email.

Bernt said data is difficult to produce because the agency doesn’t have electronic health records, but is modernizing its system and expects to be done by mid-2025. A workgroup on corrections health care costs recommended that project.

Senate Bill 843 established that workgroup. That bill passed in 2013 – a decade ago.

Complaints about correctional officers

Women in custody gave accounts of how correctional officers and staff allegedly mistreated them.

Those include:

  • Women reported officers pressured them into sex for preferential treatment and intimidated those who reported harassment and inappropriate behavior.
  • Officers ridiculed a woman and said she was just trying to get attention when she was upset about the suicide of another person in custody.
  • An officer humiliated one woman and ordered her to “eat it all right now” when she put both cream cheese and jelly on her bagel.” She was punished by being sent to her cell.

Like overdoses and lockdowns, the agency did not provide any figures.

When the Capital Chronicle asked for the number of grievances and complaints filed against correctional officers at the prison, Bernt said: “There is not a comprehensive tracking system of these files.”

Singh, with the nonprofit, said the agency’s lack of transparency is a symptom of its culture – one that has long avoided the necessary oversight and accountability from state leaders.

“That is the culture that they expect,” he said. “They don’t expect to be transparent with their information. They don’t expect to have to share or have to be held accountable for the information about what’s going on in their prison system. And that’s just a cultural phenomenon. That’s an expectation that we’ve allowed to occur.”

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Ben Botkin
Ben Botkin

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. Ben Botkin has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report. Botkin has won multiple journalism awards for his investigative and enterprise reporting, including on education, state budgets and criminal justice.

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