Corrections: An Oregon Institution Since 1842

by Michael Doughty

May 1, 2020

For over a century Oregon made do with a single prison. The Oregon Territory Jail in Oregon City was founded in 1842. After a fire in 1846, and a short lived opening in Portland, the Oregon State Penitentiary was moved to Salem in the 1850s. It was the only state prison until 1985 when a second prison, Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, opened in Pendleton. Today, Oregon has 14 state run prisons, six youth correctional facilities, and a federal prison in Sheridan.

The Oregon Department of Corrections employs 4,579 people (as of September 2018), a little more than half of those employees are security staff. The employees oversee 14,923 inmates in 14 state prisons. This doesn’t include the dozens of county jails in almost every county in Oregon, and the 1,780 inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan. Beyond the numbers, this is challenging and important work, providing a safe environment for everyone while helping to rehabilitate and reintegrate inmates into the community.
The History of Oregon Corrections

In 1994, Oregon voters overwhelmingly passed the “Tough on Crime” initiative, Ballot Measure 11. The initiative established mandatory minimum sentences for multiple crimes, required that juveniles be tried in court as adults and took away the ability for prisoners to have their sentence reduced for good behavior. In the years after Measure 11 passed, violent crime rates dropped sharply and the number of people incarcerated in Oregon increased dramatically.

In the 10 years after Ballot Measure 11 passed, the number of inmates at Oregon DOC facilities shot up from about 7,000 to almost 13,000 inmates. This 80 percent increase coincided with the construction of the majority of prisons Oregon has today. For comparison, as Oregon’s prison population grew by 80 percent, the overall employment growth was just 16 percent.

Corrections Today

The Oregon Department of Corrections has custody of 14,923 adults sentenced to prison for more than 12 months. The goal is to provide a safe and secure environment where inmates can be helped to rehabilitate. Thanks to these efforts, most ex-offenders successfully reintegrate into society. According to the Oregon Department of Corrections, the percentage of inmates who were released in 2014 and re-incarcerated for a new felony within three years after being released is 19 percent.

The Oregon Department of Corrections releases statistics which give a rough picture of what incarceration looks like. The average Oregon inmate is 40 years old. The median length of incarceration (excluding those serving life sentences without parole) is 24.5 months. Three out of four prisoners have some level of substance abuse or addiction problems. Ninety-two percent of people in prison are men. Approximately three-quarters are Caucasian.

Keeping almost 15,000 people behind bars is expensive. The total budget of the Oregon Department of Corrections for the two-year biennium (2017-2019) was $1.7 billion. That works out to roughly $155 a day to keep a prisoner safely housed.

Beyond the Department of Corrections, almost all of Oregon’s 36 counties have a county jail operated by the county sheriff. Most of the inmates in these county jails are awaiting trial or have been convicted with sentences of just a few months.

Additionally, there are six youth correctional facilities in Oregon. These are administered by the Oregon Youth Authority. There are also four “transitional facilities” where young offenders prepare to transition back into the community. The Oregon Youth Authority has 992 employees serving about 1,173 Oregon youth. About 500 live in one of the 10 facilities with another 700 on parole or probation.

The Outlook

The number of inmates housed in Oregon's prisons is expected to stay flat for the next 10 years. For comparison, Oregon’s population is expected to grow about 12 percent over the same timeframe. As a result of the flat growth in incarcerations, the incarceration rate (prison beds per 1,000 population) is expected to fall noticeably over the next 10 years. It’s important to remember that this forecast assumes no major policy changes.

Oregon is part of a national trend of declining incarceration rates. There are two popular explanations for this decline: first, declining crime rates. Violent crime rates in the U.S. have declined by about 50 percent over the last 20 years. Also, facing record high incarceration rates, many U.S. states have been increasingly developing incarceration alternatives. These alternatives are typically rehabilitation or “diversion” programs that often include restitution, therapy, and community service, all with the goal of helping offenders avoid a felony conviction and incarceration.
Since the mid-1990s, the number of people incarcerated in Oregon has more than doubled. Assuming no major changes in corrections policy or crime rates, the outlook is for the number of incarcerated Oregonians to remain largely unchanged for the next 10 years.

A Demanding Job

The most common job in a correctional facility is correctional officer, a very challenging job. Correctional officers are responsible for overseeing offenders who have been convicted of a crime or are awaiting trial. Correctional officers maintain security and inmate accountability to prevent disturbances, assaults, and escapes. The work is in a 24-hour, seven-day a week operation, with night shifts, weekends, holidays, and overtime as required.

Correctional officers maintain order within the institution and enforce rules and regulations while ensuring inmates are orderly and obey rules. Correctional officers monitor the activities and supervise the work assignments of inmates. Their duties may entail searching inmates and their living quarters for contraband, settling disputes between inmates, and enforce discipline. Correctional officers inspect the facilities, checking cells and other areas of the institution for unsanitary conditions, contraband, fire hazards, and any evidence of rule infractions.

For all this work, the median wage for a correctional officer in Oregon is $29.00 an hour. Assuming a 40-hour work week, that equates to $60,327 a year. However, overtime is very common for the 4,000 correctional officers in Oregon.

These benefits come with high costs. Research studies show that correctional officers suffer from high rates of: stress related illness, elevated blood pressure, and suicide. The high pressure responsibilities of this work have clear negative health effects.

An Important Role

Oregon has a responsibility to keep its citizens safe. This includes those individuals they have taken into custody. One tool the state use to accomplish this task is the correction facilities. The difficult task of caring for and rehabilitating the incarcerated falls on the staff of the Department of Corrections. The Corrections workforce protects the public while at the same time working to rehabilitate inmates for the transition back into society. This is challenging and important work. The overall success of these individuals impacts our society as a whole.


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