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Gov. Kate Brown says the commutation process is only for those with good conduct who have served much of their sentence.

FILE - Oregon inmates are shown here in this file photo.At least 57 inmates at risk of dying from disease will be freed from state prisons, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced.

Brown commuted the sentences on Thursday, June 25, after ordering a review of people in custody at the Oregon Department of Corrections — with priority placed on those whose poor health put them at risk of succumbing to the novel coronavirus.

Brown credited Colette S. Peters, director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, for identifying the prisoners to be released.

"I would like to thank Director Peters and her team for their diligence in completing their case-by-case analysis," Brown said, adding that she turned the key only for those "who do not present an unacceptable public safety risk."

The review focused on people in custody who, in addition to medical factors, already had completed at least 50% of their sentence, been on their best behavior for at least 12 months, had not committed a "person" crime, and who had access to housing once freed, per the announcement.

Brown had been under the gun after seven inmates filed a federal class-action lawsuit seeking financial damages and health protections — alleging a miasma of disease within the state prisons that violated their civil rights.

Alice Lundell, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Justice Resource Center that filed the suit, said none of the plaintiffs were approved for Brown's clemency.

"This is inadequate," she said by phone. "It just isn't a sufficient response to the risk presented by prisons."

About 40% of all incarcerated people would need to be released to comply with social distancing measures, she said. As of June 25, more than 175 inmates and 51 jailers have tested positive for COVID-19. Of that number, 139 inmates and 36 jail staff have recovered, state records show.

Lundell said that one middle-aged prisoner who tested positive for COVID died while behind bars at the state pen, though it's not yet clear whether the disease was the cause of death or merely present at that time.

The Oregon State Penitentiary has reported the bulk of all COVID-19 cases, with more than 514 tests conducted and around 170 cases between workers and people in custody. That temporarily made it the largest outbreak in the state, though the outbreak has since "leveled off," Lundell said.

"The parole board had a compassionate release process," she noted. "It sort of adds insult to injury, because these are people who should have been able to get out through the regular process."

For her part, Brown said she received a list of 61 adults suitable for commutation, but three of them already were scheduled to be released within a week. The remaining person was set to stay incarcerated until 2025, and Brown decided that release at this time would be "premature."

At least 13 inmates have housing and health care plans in place, meaning the commutation process can begin as soon as they test negative for COVID. The others are still crafting future plans.

Those released will still be placed on parole, with the time remaining on their sentence to be converted to post-prison supervision. All regular prohibitions regarding drug use and firearm possession apply, and those who break the rules may be returned to prison.


Zane Sparling
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