Baker City prison to stay open

September 12, 2002 11:00 pm

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

No matter how dire Oregon's budget dilemma becomes, the minimum-security Powder River Correctional Facility in Baker City will stay open.

Several other state prisons could close, however, potentially putting almost 4,000 inmates -- and 1,000 state employees -- out on the street.

"This is obviously a very poor option," wrote Ben de Haan, interim director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, in a letter to the department's employees.

The numbers are based on the state's worst-case scenario, a $482 million cut in spending for the current two-year budget cycle, which ends next year.

The Oregon Legislature is meeting in its record fifth special session to try to reach a budget deal that could avoid some of the cuts de Haan and the heads of other state agencies are bracing for.

If lawmakers do not succeed, de Haan said his department would have to slash its budget by $41.4 million.

Achieving that would require the state to close seven prisons, including the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton, which has 1,584 beds and employs 379 people.

The six other prisons on the closure list are all west of the Cascades.

According to de Haan's letter to employees, the 178-bed Powder River facility and the five other prisons that would remain open "were identified after an analysis that included geographic balance, custody levels of remaining prisoners, potential dollar savings, and the department's ongoing need to maintain flexibility and special housing beds."

Powder River Superintendent Dan Johnson was out of his office this morning and could not be reached for comment.

Brian Cole, chairman of the Baker County Board of Commissioners, lauded de Haan's decision.

"While I am very concerned about the impact that this decision, if enacted, would have on the state overall, I am pleased that the Powder River Correctional Facility will remain open under any circumstance," Cole said.

"This community worked very hard to establish Powder River here in Baker County, and it is important for our economy that it remains open."

Powder River, which opened in the fall of 1989, employs about 69 people.

That number is expected to grow by 20 to 30 employees next year when Powder River expands from the current 178 inmates to 250, said Mary Calloway, the prison's public information officer.

The state's current budget woes won't affect the expansion because money for the approximately $5 million project was allocated during the previous two-year budget cycle, Calloway said.

The new inmates are scheduled to arrive between June and October of 2003, she said.

Although Powder River will escape the effects of state budget shortfalls this time, previous cuts have affected the prison.

About two years ago Powder River had to eliminate four of its 27 guard positions.

The prison also was slated for possible closure last fall, although no shutdowns were necessary at that time.