Oregon Justice Resource Center calls Gov. Tina Kotek’s response to troubled women’s prison inadequate

By Ben Botkin, Oregon Capital Chronicle, October 12, 2023

An advocacy group called on state leaders to close Oregon’s only women’s prison and completely overhaul the corrections system after a state-ordered report found harsh conditions and the abuse of incarcerated women at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility.

The Oregon Justice Resource Center concluded that the state’s response – including an advisory panel Gov. Tina Kotek created to address Coffee Creek conditions – is woefully inadequate and falls short of the state’s needs. In a report released Thursday, the center recommends the state pursue an entirely new system, one that would shutter the Wilsonville-based prison and open smaller regional facilities throughout the state that allow incarcerated women to be closer to their families and communities. Coffee Creek has more than 800 female inmates.

The center’s conclusions are in response to a detailed 229-page state report  about Coffee Creek inmates and staff. The report described a retaliatory atmosphere, with staff and inmate concerns about reporting sexual abuse and other wrongdoing, a lack of mental health staffing and a disproportionate number of suicide attempts compared to men’s prisons. Lawmakers ordered that report in 2022.

In response to that state report, Kotek ordered Coffee Creek in August to find immediate actions to take within the next 60 days to improve conditions. Kotek also started an advisory panel to make long-term recommendations based on the state report’s findings. The advisory panel has met twice so far, both times behind closed doors without public or media access.

“When one considers the inherently harmful physical structures and the level of dysfunction in the culture, operations, services, staffing, and other domains of CCCF, the unavoidable conclusion is that there is is not any significant aspect of CCCF that is functioning effectively, let alone responsively to gender,” the center’s report said, adding that it is obvious from the state report’s findings that “women should not be incarcerated” at Coffee Creek.

In an interview with the Capital Chronicle, Bobbin Singh, the center’s executive director, homed in on the state report’s finding that Coffee Creek’s lacks a “human-centered design” and instead resembles a traditional men’s prison built to discipline and handle potentially violent inmates.

“Really, what they’re saying is this is inhumane,” he said. “This is not fit for humans.”

Center: ‘Not a serious response’ 

Singh said Kotek’s reaction to the state’s own report “is not a serious response” that reflects the gravity of the issue. He said Kotek and the Oregon Department of Corrections need to apologize for the situation.

“They haven’t apologized to the women at Coffee Creek or their families about the experiences that they’ve had,” Singh said. “That’s where you start. You have to start by acknowledging the problem and taking ownership of it.”

Kotek press secretary Elisabeth Shepard did not comment on the governor’s lack of an apology or dispute it when the Capital Chronicle asked. Shepard also declined to provide any examples of changes that the advisory panel is considering or outline Kotek’s overall philosophy about the state’s response to the report’s findings before this article’s deadline.

In a separate response, the Oregon Department of Corrections didn’t dispute the lack of an apology or provide examples of pending improvements for incarcerated women. In a statement, the agency stressed its commitment to being part of the solution.

“DOC is actively working on next steps to ensure the women we incarcerate have the tools they need to be successful during their incarceration and when they transition back to Oregon’s communities,” Acting Director Heidi Steward said in a statement.

Steward said the state’s report, which the agency supported, is necessary to show areas that need improvement but such reports “often miss the good happening.”

Advocates: Agency-wide response need

Singh said the state also needs to do similar assessments at the 11 men’s prisons  and not limit its efforts to Coffee Creek.

The center recommended other changes, such as capping the number of inmates based on staffing levels at the Oregon Department of Corrections.

While critical, Singh stressed the center wants to work with state leaders and be part of the solution, which will take time. For example, the center has a staffer assigned to Kotek’s advisory panel about Coffee Creek. 

Singh said the solutions are long-term and need detailed conversations. But in the meantime, immediate help for Coffee Creek’s women is still necessary, he said.

“It will take time but I think we have to first start with creating that space to have the conversation and acknowledging that our current system is just not working and not appropriate,” Singh said.

FEATURED IMAGE:  The outside of Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville on Friday, Aug. 18, 2023. The facility is Oregon’s only women’s prison. (Ben Botkin/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

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