Governor’s secret panel gets to work on prisons issues
Gov. Tina Kotek is taking her first major plunge into the problems at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility by convening an advisory panel to recommend ways to prevent abuse, trauma and retaliation among staff and inmates at Oregon’s only women’s prison.
The advisory panel will meet for the first time Thursday – in secret.
In August, Kotek announced the formation of the panel following reports on conditions at the Wilsonville prison: A state-commissioned report released in mid-August found harsh conditions for inmates, including a culture of retaliation and fears among staff and prisoners of being punished for filing complaints.
And another report published in July by the Oregon Justice Resource Center, a Portland-based nonprofit, included interviews with scores of women who complained about frequent lockdowns, widespread depression, suicide attempts and overdoses. The 508,000-square-foot facility, located on 108 acres, has about 870 female inmates.
Bobbin Singh, executive director of the resource center, welcomed Kotek’s initiative. He said historically, Oregon governors have not held the Department of Corrections accountable.
“The Department of Corrections has operated opaquely,” he said. “There’s really no state-level oversight from any branch of state government.”
Officials from advocacy groups and agencies will be on the advisory panel, Kotek’s office said. And the center, which advocates for criminal justice reform, has a staff attorney joining the group.
“My hope is they’ll be including the voices of those who are incarcerated at Coffee Creek,” Singh said.
He said discussions behind closed doors could be helpful initially, but he called for transparency in Kotek’s response. Based on reports from formerly incarcerated women, he said that agency staff have said “uninformed things” that demonstrate a lack of knowledge about the impacts of practices and policies.
“If the press is present, it would allow reporters to see that firsthand and to communicate that to the public,” he said.
Anca Matica, a spokesperson for Kotek’s office, defended the closed meetings in a statement, saying it’s not required by law.
“This panel aims to center the voices, perspectives, and experiences of those who have been directly impacted by conditions at Coffee Creek,” Matica said. “The panel includes several individuals previously incarcerated at Coffee Creek who are willing to share their traumatic experiences and private information for the benefit of this process and the women still housed there. Its charge is to develop recommendations for consideration within the Department of Corrections. Since this panel is not governing a public body and does not have decision-making authority, it is not subject to public meeting requirements.”
The group will meet again in the future and provide updates about potential solutions to problems, Kotek’s office said in an Aug. 17 press release.