Corrections: An Oregon Institution Since 1842

Corrections: An Oregon Institution Since 1842

by Christian Kaylor

February 21, 2017

For over a century Oregon made due with a single prison, beginning with the Oregon Territory Jail in Oregon City, founded in 1842. After a fire in 1846, and a short stint in Portland, the Oregon State Penitentiary was opened in 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, seven youth correctional facilities, and a federal prison in Sheridan.

The Oregon Department of Corrections employs 4,443 people, a little more than half of those employees are security staff. The employees oversee 14,655 inmates in 14 state prisons. This doesn’t include the dozens of county jails in almost every county in Oregon, and the 1,350 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 overwhelming passed a “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 in 1994 the number of inmates at Oregon DOC facilities shot up from about 7,000 to almost 13,000 inmates. This increase of 80 percent in just 10 years 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 adults sentenced to prison for more than 12 months, housing approximately 14,500 adults in 14 state prisons around Oregon. 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. Oregon’s recidivism rate, the percentage of inmates who re-offend within three years after being released is about 28 percent.

The average Oregon inmate is 39 years old and will spend 65 months (about 5 and half years) incarcerated. Three out of four prisoners has some level of substance abuse or addiction problems. Ninety percent of people in prison are men. Three out of four are white and non-Hispanic.

Keeping almost 15,000 people behind bars is expensive. The total budget for the Oregon Department of Corrections for the two year biennium (2015-2017) is $1.56 billion. That works out to an average cost of $95 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 seven youth correctional facilities in Oregon. These are administered by the Oregon Youth Authority. There are also three “transitional facilities” where young offenders prepare to transition back into the community. The Oregon Youth Authority has 1,057 employees serving about 1,500 Oregon youth. About 600 live in one of the 10 facilities with about another 900 on parole or probation.

The Outlook

The number of inmates housed in Oregon's prisons, currently 14,684, is expected to grow to 15,273 inmates by September 2026, a growth rate of 4.0 percent. For comparison, Oregon’s population is expected to grow 12.2 percent over the same timeframe. As a result, the incarceration rate (prison beds per 1,000 population) is expected to fall 7.7 percent over the next 10 years.

Oregon is part of a national trend of seeing declining incarceration rates. There are two popular explanations for this decline: first, declining crime rates. Violent crimes 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. Sometimes, officers must search inmates and their living quarters for contraband such as weapons or drugs, settle 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 income for a Correctional officer in Oregon is $27.54 an hour. Assuming a 40-hour work week, that equals $56,117 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.

Corrections staff have a unique job, protecting the public while at the same time working to rehabilitate inmates for the transition back into society. It’s not a job that most people are cut out for. But the work of helping Oregonians with serious challenges is one of the most important jobs there is.