Families brighten day for Powder River inmates

Written by By Jayson Jacoby June 21, 2013 10:03 am

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.