March 18, 2020
The following is testimony the we and our partners provided today to the state's Special Joint Legislative Committee on Coronavirus Response regarding safety and civil rights for incarcerated Oregonians.
Co-Chairs Roblan and Holvey, and Members of the Committee,
The response to the global pandemic COVID-19 requires careful consideration of the public health and economic impacts on the people of Oregon and the institutions that provide critical services for our state. This is no different for our state’s prisons and jails, or for victim services agencies. We urge the government in its response to prioritize saving human lives, public safety, and reducing new infections to partner with our organizations and law enforcement agencies across the state and take swift action to prevent the outbreak of COVID-19 in our prisons and jails.
An ideal response is one that brings partners together in shared and diverse expertise; that in this scenario would be coordinated between public safety, public health and victims services professionals. A collaborative response will also take into account the unique risks and dangers to those experiencing stalking, domestic and sexual violence during this time and their need for adequate protections while we call for only the most essential hearings to be held. The process should also involve hearing from people directly impacted, including incarcerated people, formerly incarcerated people and crime victims as do how these policy and practice changes are working. Their voices are critical to informing how we move forward.
People in prisons and jails are highly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses. Once a contagious illness enters, conditions in correctional facilities are highly conducive to it spreading. People in prisons and jails live in close proximity to each other. Many are housed in large dormitories, sharing the same space. People in prisons and jails do not have access to adequate soap and cleaning supplies, making infection control nearly impossible.
Many people in prisons and jails are in relatively poor health and suffer from serious chronic conditions due to lack of access to healthcare in the community, or limited healthcare provided in the correctional system. Medical staff are generally stretched thin even in the best of times. Though incarcerated people have a constitutional right to adequate medical and mental health care, the reality is they too often do not have access to it.
All this means that prison and jail populations are extremely vulnerable to a contagious illness like COVID-19. Moreover, prisoners have fewer options for protecting themselves and others. They don’t have the option to stay away from other people when they are sick. They can ask for medical attention, but prisons and jails have few infirmary beds and fewer rooms for medical isolation.
From policing, prosecution and pretrial hearings, to sentencing, confinement, and release, every aspect of the system must come under intense scrutiny for how it responds to this national public health crisis.
While our organizations strongly recommend additional actions1, we are encouraged by recent actions taken by Chief Justice Martha Walter that limit nonessential court operations statewide to limit traffic in and out of courthouses and stem the spread of the coronavirus. Similar to actions taken in other states like Ohio, the Washington County Sheriff has also announced he will be taking steps to reduce the jail population by considering early release for individuals meeting certain criteria.2 We encourage other Sheriffs to take similar actions.
Our organizations have reached out to several law enforcement offices and associations to share our concerns and offer suggested actions they can take to protect prison and jail populations as well as those on active supervision and uphold public safety in our state. Those letters are attached and suggested actions include:
- Transparency with incarcerated individuals and their families, and the public regarding actions being taken by law enforcement agencies is paramount throughout this public health emergency. It is equally important for jail and prison staff and incarcerated individuals to receive the same information and education about how to best combat COVID-19 and how to recognize the symptoms. The information provided should be accessible regardless of a person’s disability or primary language.
- Law enforcement officers need to balance their enforcement priorities with the realities of the pandemic. Police agencies need to rethink how arrests can be avoided or deprioritized to reduce the public health risks of unnecessary jailing. The Oregon Department of Corrections and Oregon jails should also refrain from transferring people to ICE custody, providing information to ICE that allows for their re-arrest upon release, or delaying anyone’s release as a result of an ICE request.
- Prosecutors should use their immense discretion to reduce the number of people who are held pretrial or who are sentenced to a confined facility. This includes making full use of available diversion programs or alternatives that don’t involve confinement and offering non-confinement sentences in plea bargaining.
- The Parole Board should expand release opportunities and expedite release decisions for incarcerated people.
- The Governor should utilize her clemency powers to decrease incarcerated populations and create a culture in which transparency, safety, and the health of all people are paramount concerns.
- Prisons, jails, and detention centers must be developing plans to protect people. They must provide soap, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies.
- Parole and Probation departments should relax reporting requirements, decrease the use of custodial sanctions, waive monthly reporting fees and look for ways to support the people they are supervising so they do not lose their employment and housing during this crisis.
We request that the Joint Committee on Coronavirus Response address this critical issue by doing the following:
- Appropriate emergency funding to reentry and treatment programs across the state so that individuals can be diverted away or released back into the community fully supported, resourced and educated.
- Appropriate emergency funding to the Oregon Department of Corrections so it may adequately address the needs of this current crisis and mitigate the harms that will be caused by this crisis.
- Appropriate emergency funding to the Board of Parole and the Governor’s office to support the expedited release of individuals through the clemency and parole process.
People in custody, including in prisons, jails, and civil detention, are often forgotten in emergencies. This creates unnecessary suffering and loss of life. We have the opportunity to take steps now to limit the spread of the virus in prisons, jails, and detention centers. But the time to act for the health of those incarcerated, and for the broader community, is now.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
ACLU of Oregon
Disability Rights oregon
Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association
Oregon Justice Resource Center
Partnership For Safety & Justice