Oregon jail population decreases in response to pandemic
In response to the public health concern posed by the COVID-19 outbreak, the Clackamas County Jail has reduced its inmate population by 67 percent, from 466 at the outset of the pandemic to just 152 currently.
That info was published this week by civil rights advocacy group Disability Rights Oregon in a brief surveying how the state's county jails have adapted to stem the spread of novel coronavirus among their inmates.
According to Sarah Radcliffe, the organization's managing attorney on mental health rights and author of the brief, Oregon's county jails averaged a 45-50% reduction in their populations.
"It's a really significant reduction," Radcliffe told Pamplin Media Group. "And something that, not only disability rights and criminal justice reform advocates have been calling for, but really a lot of our partners in law enforcement and judges have also seen a need for."
Radcliffe said that DRO feels this move seen statewide is a step in the right direction in terms of helping alleviate not only concerns over the spread of coronavirus — it being nearly impossible to physically distance properly inside of a jail dorm — but also with regard to supporting the liberty recuperation of non-violent offenders who are often setback significantly when they're held in jail for a significant amount of time.
The study outlines a number of steps taken on the local level and collaboration between their local courts and law enforcement to significantly curtail admissions, such as turning away arrestees who are charged with minor and non-person crimes, or who show signs of illness.
But each local approach to inmate reduction was also guided in part by statewide guidance from the Oregon State Sheriff's Association.
According to Jason Myers, former Marion County sheriff and current executive director of OSSA, his organization has hosted weekly conference calls since the onset of the coronavirus outbreak for sheriffs and jail commanders, as well as the Department of Corrections and Oregon Health Authority.
"During this call, best practices, emerging trends and information is shared between jail commanders on how best to protect the individuals in their custody from the COVID-19 virus," Myers said. "The Oregon Sheriffs and Jail Commanders have done a remarkable job — in an unprecedented situation — of keeping our community safe while protecting the most vulnerable populations in their jails."
Radcliffe points out that the reductions seen county to county are not necessarily those being released, much of it is also denying admission to people charged with more minor or misdemeanor crimes.
"The basic criteria is, is there a safety concern?" Radcliffe said. "If there's not, there's really no reason to hold a person in jail."
According to Radcliffe, one of the ways counties like Clackamas saw such dramatic reduction in their population was to begin issuing citations in lieu of bookings in cases where the crime committed was not a felony, domestic violence or a sex crime.
Counties also worked with medical staff to identify people being held who were particularly vulnerable to coronavirus, such as being elderly or having a pre-existing medical condition. In turn, sheriff's departments worked with courts and their attorneys to release the most vulnerable from custody.
"We were really pleased and grateful to have such a high response rate (with) 26 jails responding to the survey," Radcliffe said. "So we just really appreciate the partnership with the Sheriff's Association and with individual jails in getting this information to us."
Radcliffe indicated that, from her position as a mental health and criminal justice advocate, she hopes these changes to how law enforcement views bookings creates a better status quo where those who are charged with petty crimes — often those who are impoverished — aren't continually setback by the system meant to help rehabilitate them.
Some other highlights of DRO's brief include:
— Thirteen jails reported they need additional soap or hand sanitizer.
— Polk County Jail reported the largest percent reduction of 76%, from 120 inmates pre-outbreak to just 29 currently.
— Umatilla County Jail reported the smallest percent reduction of only 22%, from 210 inmates pre-outbreak to 163 currently.
— Clackamas County saw the highest reduction in the metro area, with Multnomah and Washington counties reporting 30% and 52%, respectively.
In a recent press release, Sheriff Craig Roberts said the Clackamas County Jail "has been a regional leader in its response to COVID-19, implementing effective protocols emulated by jails across the state." On April 3, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care gave the jail the rare distiction among jails in Oregon of full medical accreditation.
The accreditation process involved a detailed external peer review and site survey to ensure the jail met 59 national standards for the provision of health services covering categories like administration, safety, personnel, training, inmate treatment, health promotion, special services, health records and medical/legal issues.
Among the Clackamas County Jail's COVID-19 precautions, according to the sheriff's office:
— Staff training on COVID-19 in correctional settings
— Enhanced cleaning procedures
— Enhanced screening of custodies during intake, including questions and temperature
— Targeted medical screening protocols for jail staff
— Rerouting of transport for prisoners displaying COVID-19 symptoms
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