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Report: From treatment of prisoners to chronic understaffing, Ore. women’s prison is in a crisis

More than half of the employees at Coffee Creek feel it is “not a psychologically safe facility for staff,” the researchers wrote

Oregon women's prison Coffee Creek Correctional

Beth Nakamura

By Noelle Crombie

WILSONVILLE, Ore. — Prisoners at Oregon’s only women’s prison say they face retaliation for complaining about sexual misconduct, pay exorbitant fees to call their children and are forced to wear ill-fitting bras because of paltry commissary offerings.

Coffee Creek Correctional Facility serves a population with high mental health and substance abuse treatment needs but faces chronic and severe understaffing and disagreements between staff who provide mental health care to prisoners and those who guard them.

A 229-page review ordered by the Legislature and released Thursday enumerates the problems and shows a prison in crisis, the result of what authors identified as a systemic failure to adequately serve the estimated 850 women housed at the prison in Wilsonville.

The report by the Women’s Justice Institute and the Center for Effective Public Policy analyzed Oregon’s responsiveness to gender in its prison system and includes a dozen recommendations, each focused on improving the circumstances and treatment of incarcerated women.

It calls for Oregon leaders to respond to the “immediate need” for investment in the women and staff at Coffee Creek.

“Charting a new course in Oregon … is a shared, statewide responsibility,” the authors wrote.

Gov. Tina Kotek called the findings “sobering” and said she is “resolved to confront these issues head on.” She directed the Oregon Department of Corrections to determine “immediate actions” to address problems raised in the report within 60 days.

Staff shortages at the women’s prison are acute and among the highest of any of the state’s dozen prisons, reviewers found. They noted Coffee Creek has the highest vacancy rate in the prison system among medical staff.

Morale is low and perceptions of employees’ well-being is poor, they found.

More than half of the employees at Coffee Creek feel it is “not a psychologically safe facility for staff,” the researchers wrote.

Prison workers struggle to respond to “acute behaviors among women,” a challenge compounded by low staffing. Women told the authors that they are moved arbitrarily. One said prison staff “put fighters in the same cell.”

The researchers found a prison system hostile to the needs of the people it incarcerates.

For instance, they cited an overly burdensome telecommunications system with a 22-step validation process that “is causing psychological harm” by creating unnecessary barriers for women to connect with their children and loved ones. The report cited costs of 9 cents a minute for calls and $6 for what prisoners described as low-quality video calls.

The report’s authors recommended that Oregon make those forms of communication free “especially as it relates to communicating with children and working to secure housing and employment.”

They found women fear retaliation if they report sexual misconduct and lack confidence in the reporting and investigative process.

“This is leading them to adopt various behaviors to keep themselves safe within a system they do not trust,” the authors noted.

Prisoners who report such conduct told the researchers that they are placed in solitary confinement “for their own protection.” Prisoners reported other retaliation as well, including mistreatment by staff and transfers to more restrictive housing.

“It was reported that when a resident makes an allegation, she is often reassigned to another unit pending the outcome of an investigation,” the reviewers wrote.

One woman told the authors that she broke a rule so she would lose her prison job to avoid reporting misconduct.

Staff, too, lack confidence in the reporting system, fearing it can be manipulated by prisoners to target employees they don’t like.

Even buying clothing is problematic at Coffee Creek, with one woman telling the researchers that she has “dents in my shoulders because I don’t have a proper bra.” Another observed that women in prison “have been defeminized from shoes to clothes.”

The state issues clothing, underwear and shoes to prisoners; they have the option to buy them from the prison commissary as well.

“Women are struggling to access needed clothing and shoes, including appropriately sized bras and shoes that fit,” they noted. “Many mentioned that there are not enough shoes offered in various sizes … and that they are forced to wear shoes that do not fit, which causes discomfort and, in some cases, medical issues.”

Women told the researchers that they struggle to get basic needs met, particularly when they first arrive in prison. The state provides them with “a limited hygiene packet, which is unrealistically expected to meet their needs for one month.” That leads to prohibited conduct, such as bartering with other prisoners for essentials, like deodorant, the authors found.

The women “describe having to ‘hunt’ to get the things they need,” the report said.

Prisoners reported that they were victims of emotional abuse by staff and that they are threatened with punishment. They are treated “less than human” and “without dignity,” the reviewers wrote.

“They also reported being infantilized, experiencing gaslighting, being demeaned as part of routine practices,” such as strip searches, according to the report.

One survey found 64% of women said staff treated them with disrespect.

The report highlighted disparities between men’s prisons and Coffee Creek, including “unequal and inequitable legal services compared to men.”

The review was carried out by Alyssa Benedict, co-founder of the Women’s Justice Institute, Deanne Benos, another co-founder of the organization and its director, and Marilyn Van Dieten, a senior adviser at the Center for Effective Public Policy.

The Chicago-based Women’s Justice Institute’s work focuses on reducing the number of people in prison, harm reduction policies and improving the well-being of incarcerated women. The Maryland-based Center for Effective Public Policy says it works with state and local governments “to improve their systems” for justice.

Oregon’s women prison population dropped during the pandemic, mirroring the trend among men, according to the state. Nearly 1,200 women were in prison in early 2020, a number that plunged to a low of 816 the following year. The population has inched up in the months since.

Kotek said she would convene a panel to review the findings and implement the authors’ recommendations.

“It is incumbent on Oregon’s corrections system to ensure that the use of carceral settings yield the best possible public safety outcomes and set people up for successful re-entry,” Kotek said in a statement.

The report was ordered by the Legislature in 2022, the same year it funded a new position of gender responsive coordinator in the governor’s office. That position was filled in April with the hiring of attorney Mia Ruston. Her annual salary is $122,436.

The state paid $99,961 for the report.

Kotek has yet to appoint a permanent executive director for the Oregon Department of Corrections, which previously was led by Colette S. Peters. Peters left last year to lead the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. Her longtime deputy, Heidi Steward, has served as acting director since.

On Thursday, Steward said the agency is “actively working on next steps” to address the recommendations outlined in review.

The agency hired former corrections administrator, Joan Palmateer, this month to help implement the recommendations, said Department of Corrections spokesperson Amber Campbell. The state will pay Palmateer $82,047 for the seven-month assignment, Campbell said.

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