Watchdog says state prison may miss target for reforms

FILE - Oregon State Penitentiary

An Oregon prison facility housing mentally ill inmates isn't fixing problems fast enough to meet a timeline agreed to by the state, according to a report released by a watchdog group.

While some of the worst conditions have been fixed, and officials point to recent gains, advocates say the state isn't making enough progress to complete a top priority: Ending de facto solitary confinement for mentally ill inmates by allowing them at least 20 hours per week outside of their cells within four years.

"If you average out all the ups and downs... there's never been a 12-month period with a trajectory sufficient to reach that goal," said Joel Greenberg, an attorney with the nonprofit Disability Rights Oregon and the main author of the report.

The group, a federally-designated advocate for disabled people in the state, released the report Tuesday.

At the center of the controversy is the Behavioral Health Unit, part of the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. The facility houses inmates who are separated from other prisoners, often because of behaviors associated with severe mental illness.

In 2016, officials agreed to a memorandum of understanding after the Oregon group exposed problems and made clear they were prepared to sue the state.

Chief among the issues cited in the original report were violent incidents called cell extractions and inmates being confined to their cells without the opportunity to go outside, exercise, or get mental health treatment.

Solitary confinement often causes inmates already struggling with mental illness to deteriorate dramatically, with increased rates of violent self-harm and suicide attempts, according to reports from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups. When the group first looked into the facility, Greenberg said, mentally ill prisoners often spent 23 hours per day locked in single-person cells.

In response, Department of Corrections Director Colette Peters signed the memorandum, which included agreements to work toward reducing both over the next four years, and specified 20 hours per week of out-of-cell time, or just under three hours per day, as a key target. The agreement also required the state to share data with the group so that advocates could monitor state progress.

Tuesday's report marked the halfway point in the agreement. In the first year, Greenberg said inmates appeared to be getting no more than five hours out of their cells per week. In the second year, the average appeared to climb only to about six, putting the state on course to fall short of its goal.

The forcible, often violent extraction of prisoners from their cells by teams of armored officers has declined, Greenberg said, a result of what he described as a significant, if limited, good-faith effort.

In a letter responding to the report, Peters wrote that expansions and additional resources are planned, including a new building slated to open in June and specifically designed to allow now-isolated inmates to spend more time outside of their cells in activities like classes. Peters also said increased funding should allow hiring new mental health workers by summer.

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