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Families brighten day for Powder River inmates

By Jayson Jacoby

Baker City Herald Editor

It’s easy to forget that there’s a state prison in Baker City.

The Powder River Correctional Facility would be much more conspicuous, I suspect, if it closed.

Doubtless the local economy would notice the loss of about 100 jobs (roughly two-thirds are state employees, the others contractors).

The minimum-security prison, which has 308 beds and could add 30 more, opened almost a quarter-century ago, on Nov. 9, 1989.

The building, at 3600 13th St. in north Baker City, attracted quite a bit more attention during its first several years of operation than it has since.

This is due in part, I imagine, to Powder River being a new and somewhat controversial — as prisons inevitably are — addition to the community.

The more noteworthy characteristic during that early period, though, was that Powder River inmates got loose pretty frequently.

In its first six years or so, 44 inmates either escaped from the prison or walked away while part of a crew working outside the walls — one every couple of months, on average.

But since February 1996 just 14 inmates have gone missing — and only two of those were in the past decade.

So what happened to explain this sharp decline in escapes?

Well, razor wire happened.

Workers topped the prison’s 12-foot perimeter fence with coils of the skin-shredding stuff in February 1996.

Of the 44 inmates who had escaped before then, 26 of them had scaled the razor-free fence.

Since 1996 just three inmates have escaped from the prison itself (as opposed to fleeing from a work crew), and one of those slipped out the front gate rather than trying to negotiate the razor wire.

Considering that escaping is the most common way in which inmates of any prison get noticed by local residents, it’s little wonder that Powder River generates rather less publicity than it used to.

But it would be overly simplistic to conclude that the fear of getting sliced up is the only deterrent keeping Powder River inmates in their cells.

Another important change, this one dating to 2003, was the arrival at Powder River of a program by which inmates who are being treated for drug and alcohol addiction — Powder River has won awards for the success of its treatment program — can qualify for early release.

The efficacy of the treatment program itself, which predates the early release option, has surely motivated inmates as well, most of whom are within two years of release when they arrive at Powder River.

And I’d like to believe that a third element — one that was tried for the first time last weekend at the prison — will give inmates yet another powerful reason to avoid the temptation to shorten their sentence by extralegal means.

On Saturday, June 15, Powder River put on its inaugural “Family Day” event.

Inmates’ relatives were invited to the prison not just for a regular visit, but for an afternoon in which inmates could share a meal with family, play games, or paint a flower pot. Veronica Johnson, correctional rehabilitation manager at Powder River who helped organize the event, estimated that 250 family members attended.

Inmates paid for the food with money they’ve earned from work while in custody.

I concede to a certain ambivalence when it comes to anything which could be construed as coddling convicted criminals.

But as I looked at the photographs that the Herald’s Kathy Orr took at Powder River on Saturday, I remembered that inmates aren’t the only ones who suffer from their own misdeeds.

I looked at the faces of children whose fathers are incarcerated here, noticed how broad and how bright their smiles were as they got to spend an afternoon with dad’s arm around their shoulders.

It’s a perfectly valid question, of course, to ask, if having wives and children didn’t persuade these men to follow the law before, why would a barbecue on a sunny June afternoon influence their behavior in the future?

I don’t know the answer.

However, a recent study commissioned by the Minnesota prison system showed that inmates who have visitors are much less likely to re-offend, said Liz Craig, communications director for the Oregon Department of Corrections.

This makes sense, since visiting with a loved one ought to remind a prisoner what he’s missing, and why he doesn’t want to go back once he’s served his time.

Which is pretty much the goal, as I understand it, of the penal system.

I don’t mean to suggest that scheduling a “Family Day” once a year will eliminate recidivism.

But neither do I see any downside to the practice — the more so since inmates, not the taxpayers who already give them room and board, have to buy the food.

Sentencing someone to prison is supposed to be a punishment, of course, and I believe that, by and large, it should be.

But if, for the paltry cost of giving inmates a few hours in the sunshine with the people who love them, we can prevent even a relative handful from returning to the wrong side of the fence, I would consider this a sound investment.

As for a little girl’s or a little boy’s smile, well, you can’t put a value on that.

. . .

On the morning before the solstice my furnace was up before dawn, puttering around the house and rifling through my wallet, like a teenager looking for lunch money.

(Which makes me wonder: Do kids still get allowances in currency, or via electronic transfer to their smartphones?)

This is to be expected, of course, in our climatological purgatory halfway between the equator and the North Pole.

And at least this chilly interlude was accompanied by beneficial rain — albeit perhaps too much rain in a single day.

Still and all I felt a twinge of financial pain when I heard the familiar whisper of air issuing from the grates.

I relish these shoulder seasons that separate the frigid and the torrid. It’s a fine thing to sit in temperate comfort, with no machine burning through your BTU budget.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.

 

Welcome, Oregon cattlemen

Gold was responsible for Baker County’s birth, but beef is truly the place’s most lasting economic legacy.

It’s wholly appropriate, then, that the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association was founded here, and most fitting that the organization will celebrate its centennial here this weekend.

The miners arrived in 1861, and, given the prodigious appetites miners tend to work up, and the utter absence of supermarkets, cattle herds soon followed.

Raising beef has been a mainstay of the county’s, and the region’s, economy every since.

Which is hardly surprising, because this is good cattle country.

There’s ample water, flat ground suitable for growing hay and alfalfa for winter feed, and hundreds of thousands of acres of rangeland for spring, summer and fall grazing.

Baker County, with an inventory of 123,700 head in 2012, has the fourth-largest cattle herd among Oregon’s 36 counties, trailing Malheur (276,000), Klamath (187,000) and Harney (161,000).

Gross sales of beef cattle from the county totaled $53.6 million in 2012.

Ranching is, as always, a tough and tenuous business. But the past few years have been good ones, in general, and Oregon ranchers picked the right place to have their big celebratory bash.

 

Letters to the Editor for June 21, 2013

Don’t punish city employees because of their workload

This letter is in response to Doug Darlington’s June 19 letter suggesting that city employees be punished financially for their “priority” setting. Every department, every employee and every supervisor has to make decisions everyday based on “priority.” There are only so many people, budget dollars or time to accomplish established goals. In fact, the leading article of the same paper discusses one city employee who has three responsibilities: school resource, code enforcement and patrol officer.

So you are advocating that because he makes a “priority” of backing up a fellow officer on a felony stop rather than deal with your neighbor’s weeds, he should lose pay? What about the public works employees who are out dealing with flooding rather than mowing the grass? Don’t forget the firefighters who cannot respond immediately to a burn complaint because they are already on multiple emergency calls with only two people. It is not the employees’ fault. Sometimes tough decisions have to be made. Tough decisions we all make every day at home and at work based on “priorities.”

You state that “one of the nation’s biggest downturns was forcing the rest of us to live on less,” but you want to impose a loss in pay as punishment? So it sucks if you lose money, but it is OK to advocate the loss of financial stability for others? Since when is being a public employee something that should be punished? Public employees spend money around town too. Money they are still spending despite furloughs, budget cuts and increased workloads. 

Don Taggart

Baker City firefighter

City should enforce current laws before banning smoking

I read with interest the city’s notice at the parks about considering a smoking ban at the parks. I would point out to you that there are a number of bans for the parks that are completely ignored. 

I am especially concerned about the one of having dogs on leash. We live near the park, and walk our dog there frequently. She has been attacked by a roaming dog, and I have seen people open their cars and let dogs run free. This is NOT a dog park for free roaming dogs.

I would suggest that before banning smoking at the park, you enforce the existing laws.

Judith Harmer

Baker City

 

Letter to the Editor for June 19, 2013


City should consider trimming pay for lack of performance

Mayor Richard Langrell isn’t alone in believing the city council, having already shown an interest in lowering personnel costs, posted a perplexing failure when it then approved an employee contract that included a pay raise.

City employees have enjoyed several years of hefty pay raises, all while one of the nation’s biggest downturns was forcing the rest of us to live on less. With two more contracts to negotiate, the council has set an unfortunate precedent.

Here’s a way to mitigate the problem, however: Every time a city employee tells someone that a particular issue or complaint can’t be addressed because “it’s not a high priority,” decrease everyone’s compensation by half a percent or so.

If you’ve dealt with the city much,  you’ve undoubtedly heard that refrain. Even Councilor Roger Coles recently remarked that he’s been told that about the enforcement of ordinances. I’ve been told that about business issues and residential neighborhood speeding.

This “priority” comment goes hand-in-hand with another often used phrase: “.... a useful tool.” Most recently, an ordinance banning smoking in parts was described as such.

These phrases should give every Baker resident pause. Here’s why: Codes and ordinances that get enforced or ignored on a case-by-case basis allow favoritism.

One person’s mess of a property is overlooked while another’s is deemed a hazard. One person’s pet is considered harmless while another’s is called a nuisance. One person’s business is charged a common license fee while another’s is hammered with special charges and restrictions.

It’s the very definition of the “old boy” system that has poorly served the common Baker resident over the decades.

Loss of compensation to address lacking performance isn’t uncommon. Start shaving dollars off paychecks every time a city employee deems something too low a “priority” to bother with, and things will certainly change. For one thing, we’ll find out who among these people are workers and who are simply placeholders.

If there’s too many rules to enforce, maybe Mike Kee should sniff out some outdated, unnecessary or unwieldy ordinances and recommend their elimination. A forward-thinking city manager would consider that time well spent.

Doug Darlington

Baker City

 

Legislature needs to make deal


Compromise is a necessary ingredient in the messy business of making laws, but too often, it seems, legislators act as though that word is a synonym for capitulation.

This misses the reality of a true compromise, which is that each side gives up something, in exchange for gaining something else.

The Oregon Legislature has a chance to forge just such a compromise, but the opportunity seems to be slipping away in Salem.

This deal, which Gov. John Kitzhaber proposed this month, has the potential to achieve two goals vital to the state’s future.

 

Action needed on drought


Oregon and federal officials need to respond quickly to the Baker County Board of Commissioners’ June 5 declaration of a drought emergency.

The need for state and federal aid, which the county’s declaration is intended to summon, becomes more likely with the passage of each dry day.

On Wednesday evening a range fire near Huntington forced the temporary closure of the westbound lanes of Interstate 84.

The blaze indicates how dry the county’s rangelands already are, a week before the solstice.

Those rangelands are a vital source of summer forage for the county’s beef cattle herd — a $53 million business in 2012 — but even places that don’t burn might be useless for grazing.

The county’s only commercial fruit-grower, Eagle Valley Orchard near Richland, has already suffered a major loss due to a hard freeze in April.

And a looming shortage of irrigation water could cause big problems for farmers and ranchers throughout the county.

It could well be, of course, that Baker County will get by without any assistance — we’ve certainly done so before during difficult circumstances.

But the commissioners were wise to take action before the situation turns into a crisis.

Now their counterparts at the state and federal levels need to do the same.

 

A bigfoot tracker makes a little girl’s birthday


I have in the past expressed some doubt as to whether “Finding Bigfoot,” the cable TV program, is wholly devoted to scientific rigor in its pursuit of the hirsute beast.

The four hosts of the Animal Planet show, which is supposed to start its fourth season this fall, seem to know an awful lot about a creature whose very existence has not been confirmed.

From here on, though, my skepticism will be tempered by a personal bias in favor of one of the show’s stars, Cliff Barackman.

He gave my daughter, Olivia, a gift I expect she will always cherish.

 

Widening the DNA dragnet


If the federal government thinks groups that toss around words such as “liberty” deserve extra scrutiny as to their tax-exempt status, just imagine what that gargantuan enterprise might do with a detailed map of you, at the sub-cellular level.

Recently, with nearly daily revelations about the feds’ efforts to find out what you’re saying, and to prevent you from finding out what they’re up to, even a staunch defender of the benevolence of an omnipotent government must wonder whether his trust has been misplaced.

Last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which validates the practice of having police take DNA samples from people who have been arrested, but not convicted, only thickens the Orwellian clouds of concern about our lack of privacy.

Justice Antonin Scalia, the renowned conservative who was joined in his dissent by the High Court’s most liberal justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, neatly summarized the possible, and troubling, ramifications:

“Make no mistake about it: Because of today’s decision, your DNA can be taken and entered into a national database if you are ever arrested, rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason,” Scalia wrote in his dissent.

But happily, this prospect is not a certainty in Oregon.

 

Letters to the Editor for June 12, 2013


Off-road group hauled 1,120 pounds of trash from woods

Locked & Loaded Off-Road of Baker County would like to thank our generous sponsors who helped make our Elk Creek clean up day a huge success as we picked up and hauled out more than 1,120 pounds of garbage.

Bucks 4x4, license plate covers, hats, can cozys, stickers, T-shirt, pink onesie and a grab handle; Hills Carquest, quick fist mounting systems, 5-quart oil change; Ash Grove, folding chairs, barbecue sets with apron and can cozys; Gentry Auto Group, oil change, hats, cooler, Armor All, Miracle towel, and an X-Box; Jeffery Grende Heating and AC, heating service; B&K Auto Salvage, $200 store credit; Baker City Truck Corral, meal coupons; Baker Valley Auto Parts, tow strap; Grumpy’s Repair, oil change; Oregon Sign, T-shirt, banner and decals.

Baker Sanitary Service donated the dump fee; Key Building donated the trailer to haul trash; and Steve Ritch donated garbage bags.

Christina Witham

Baker City

Obamacare is just a start; we need a real solution

274,000 Oregonians will continue to lack health insurance after the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) is implemented in 2016.  A study by researchers at the Harvard Medical School and the City University of New York School of Public Health released June 6 concluded that 30 million people in the United States will remain uninsured after implementation of Obamacare.

Eighty-one percent of the uninsured will be U.S. citizens and white persons of all ethnicities will make up 74 percent. Fifty-nine percent of the uninsured will have incomes between 100 percent and 399 percent of poverty and 27 percent will have below poverty incomes. 

There are currently 532,000 uninsured Oregonians. More than half will still lack insurance after Obamacare is implemented. Much of the drop in numbers of uninsured Oregonians is a result of Oregon expanding Medicaid. If Oregon had opted out of expanded Medicaid, many more of our friends, neighbors and family members would be uninsured.

In addition to leaving thousands of Oregonians uninsured, Obamacare does little to control sky-rocketing costs of health insurance.

Oregon needs a health care cost study and, fortunately, has the chance to get one. HB 3260, a study of health care financing options in Oregon, was passed unanimously with bi-partisan support by the Oregon House Health Care Committee and is now in the Ways and Means Committee. It is expected to go soon to the House and Senate for discussion and votes.

HB 3260 authorizes the Oregon Health Authority to commission a study of four options for financing health care for every Oregonian — implementing and expanding the Affordable Care Act, adding a public option in the state insurance  exchange, implementing statewide single payer health care and a forth option to be chosen by the legislature.

The current health care funding system is broken and must be repaired or replaced. 

If health insurance costs continue to increase at current rates, soon none of us will be able to afford coverage. HB 3260 is the first step in identifying the changes we need.

Bill Whitaker

La Grande

 

That's not Grant County


The portrait of Grant County sketched in a story in The Oregonian last week was far from a flattering portrayal of our neighbor to the southwest.

We’re skeptical, though, that that portrait, as outlined in the story about the possible release from prison of convicted murderer Sidney Dean Porter, is anything close to accurate, for Grant County or the many other places in Eastern Oregon with similar demographics.

On April 7, 1992, Porter used a piece of firewood to beat to death John Day Police officer Frank Ward.

 
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