By ED MERRIMAN
Baker City Herald
Keeping the Powder River Correctional Facility off the state's budget
chopping block was a top priority at Wednesday's Prison Advisory
Council meeting, but the meeting also buzzed with criticism of a
decision that curtailed some inmate work crews starting July 1.
"Our No. 1 priority is to protect the Powder River facility and staff,"
said Fred Warner Jr., chairman of the Baker County Board of
Commissioners. "We will fight all we can to keep Powder River. We will
fight to our last breath to keep Powder River as the last
minimum-security prison closed."
Warner said the county's second priority is to convince the Department of Corrections to resume the practice of having crews of Powder River inmates work for local nonprofits and public service agencies in the area for no charge, with the cost paid from the state general fund.
"We need to figure out how to get the inmates back out in the community working," Warner said.
Ken Neff, director of operations at Powder River, said the state-subsidized inmate work crews were suspended July 1 in response to Gov. Ted Kulongoski's June order that all state agencies trim 9 percent from their budgets to bridge an estimated $577 deficit for the two-year state budget cycle that ends June 30, 2011.
The Department of Corrections (DOC) initially proposed, in addition to ending subsidized work crews, closing Powder River and two other minimum-security prisons.
On June 9, Kulongoski rejected the proposal to close any prisons.
However, Neff said the other cuts took effect July 1, including the demise of the subsidized inmate work crews.
As an alternative, Neff said the governor directed DOC to make inmate crews available for hire at a rate of $458 for a 10-man crew for 8 hours, including DOC security staff; $543 for a 10-man crew for 10 hours; or $5.50 per day per inmate for host agencies when no DOC security staff is provided.
Peggy Timm of Baker City asked Neff how DOC can justify eliminating work crews, or making them too expensive for many nonprofits, considering Oregon voters approved Measure 17 in 1994, which requires inmates to work.
Neff said inmates will still do institutional work inside the prison.
In addition, some inmates still work for Oregon Corrections Enterprises operations, such as a Department of Motor Vehicles call center and a prison print shop.
In addition, Neff said educational and job training activities done by inmates while in prison also count as work under Measure 17.
Karen Yeakley, chairwoman of the Prison Advisory Committee, said treating Powder River inmates for drug and alcohol addictions and providing opportunities for them to work and get reconnected to the community are essential for rehabilitating inmates before they are released.
"The end result is we want good citizens," Yeakley said.
Representatives from the Community Connection Senior Center, Baker Heritage Museum, Crossroads Carnegie Art Center, the Leo Adler House Museum and other public service entities told prison officials that with an aging corps of volunteers, they depend on prison work crews for a variety of tasks, including setting up and cleaning up after events such as Bronc and Bull Riding events during Miners Jubilee, and the upcoming Baker County Fair.
Yeakley suggested nonprofit groups rally support for the Legislature to look for ways to restore the no-cost prison work crews.
Mary Jo Carpenter, county manager for Community Connection programs in Baker County, suggested the state try to rein in personnel costs instead.
Carpenter and Yeakley both called for representatives of nonprofit groups and others who utilize prison work crews to write and call lawmakers and DOC officials to explain how important those work crews are to their programs.
"We want to make sure we are squawking about the loss or work crews," Carpenter said.
Aletha Bonebrake, the Baker City Council's representative on the Prison Committee, said she believes it's important to focus on the rehabilitative value work crews offer to inmates.
Bart Murray, outgoing director and chief executive officer at New Directions Northwest, which runs the alcohol and drug treatment program that treats Powder River inmates, said that 10 or 15 years ago New Directions employees supervised Powder River inmate crews because working in the community is considered part of their treatment.
"We would be glad to do that again, for free," Murray said.
He said union grievances over the loss of jobs that occurred when people other than DOC staff supervised inmate work crews led DOC to limit supervision to DOC staff.
Since there are no general fund dollars to pay DOC staff to supervise the work crews any more, Murray said the issue of other people taking jobs away from DOC staff is moot.
"We have staff who are trained to supervise the work crews, and we would be willing to do that at no charge," Murray reiterated.
By focusing on the importance of work crews as part of the treatment protocol for inmates soon to be released, Bonebrake said the DOC might be more inclined to let New Directions Northwest staff supervise the work crews, at least until the state can afford to subsidize crews with general fund money.
Baker City Police Chief Wyn Lohner cautioned that putting people who lack proper training in charge of inmates can be "scary."
But Ginger Savage, executive director at Crossroads Carnegie Center, said she has "never had a moment's anxiety being around the work crews, and my volunteers have never had a moment's anxiety."
"Our average volunteers are in their 80s, so they can't scrub toilets and mop floors," Savage said. "We so appreciate everything the work crews do."
Savage said she has noticed that the inmates take pride in their work, and she cited an example where after helping uncrate and set up a display of two masks valued at $25,000, she heard the inmate talking with pride about the fact that he hung those valuable masks without breaking them.
"This work makes a difference in their lives," said Chris Cantrell of the Baker Heritage Museum. "I have observed guys who are drop-jawed looking at what is in the museum.
"I was talking to one of the guys on a work crew and he told me he had never been in a museum before," Cantrell said. "I think the experience brings them to a point where they have hope for the rest of their lives."
According to the National Institute of Literacy, 70 percent of inmates function at the lowest literacy levels, and fewer than 32 percent of state prison inmates have high school diplomas or higher levels of education, compared to 82 percent of the general population.
The National Institute of Justice reported that 60 percent of former prison inmates were unemployed one year after release.
Ron Miles, who works at Powder River, said statistics show that job training and education, along with drug and alcohol treatment are needed to reduce the rate of recidivism, which is one of the keys to reducing the nation's prison population.
which began exploding in the mid-1960s.
While more recent increases in prison populations in Oregon and elsewhere are often attributed to passage of get tough on crime and higher minimum sentence requirements, the FBI Crime Index prison population increases paralleled soaring crime rates.
In Oregon, crime rates soared from around 3,000 per 100,000 population in 1965 to more than 6,200 by 1978, and continued to clime by 258 percent from the remainder of the 1970s, through the 1980s and early 1990s, even before voters passed Measure 11 in 1994, increasing the minimum sentences imposed on a wide range of felonies.
Currently, Baker Cunty has the lowest reported crime rate in Oregon, listed at 800 per 100,000 population, even though the population of the county is just under 10,000.
Between 1965 and 2010, the total population incarcerated in state prisons nationwide soared from around 125,000 to more than 1.4 million, according to the Association of State Correctional Administrators.
While some states mostly warehouse criminals for years without offering much in the way of treatment, education, job training or work experience, Ron Miles, communications specialist at Powder River, said Oregon and the Powder River facility and others providing alternative incarceration programs, are on the leading edge.
Carpenter said she hasn't had any problems with the inmate workers undergoing treatment with NDNW and Powder River.
This this past winter, inmate work crews shoveled snow off sidewalks and driveways for 70 seniors who were disabled or home bound.
"Who will do it now," Carpenter said.
"From what i saw, the inmates treated the seniors with respect," she said.
Yeakley suggested nonprofits get together and figure out a way to hire a grant writer to go out and secure grant funding to help pay for hiring "other funded" prison work crews, now that the general funded work crews, once provided at no cost, have been suspended.
However, Neff said the DOC is still trying to figure out the details of how they'll go about providing prison work crews, without including DOC security staff to oversee them.
"We're working on it, but we're not there yet," Neff said.
Miles said Oregon is a national leader in assessing prisoners mental health and drug and alcohol addiction issues, and developing treatment programs to help them overcome those issues so they can be good citizens by the time they get out of prison.
Currently about 271 inmates are serving the last year or two of their sentences at the Powder River Correctional Facility, which has a capacity of 286. It is considered an alternative incarceration program, where inmates with drug or alcohol addictions can get reduced sentences for voluntarily going through treatment.
The prison employs 70 DOC staff, and 40 people work for New Directions Northwest to provide drug and alcohol treatment.
Miles said statistically, drugs and alcohol are listed as contributing factors in the crimes committed by about 80 percent of all prison inmates nationwide.
He said drug and alcohol treatment, job training, education and participating in work crews can help inmates turn their lives around, and that's important, considering 97 percent of those who go to prison will eventually be released back into society.
Unfortunately, due to lack of funding and other issues, Miles said treatment, job training and work crew opportunities are limited to some extent to selected inmates in their last year or two of their sentences.
Along with a lack of more long-term training, education and treatment programs during much of their prison sentences, Miles said statistics show about a third of those who released from prison will be back in for committing another crime within three years.
"That's true of prisons all over the country," Miles said.
"When we wind up with people multiple times in prison, they are less likely to change their lives without treatment," he said.
Statewide, about 14,400 people are currently locked up in Oregon's state prisons, 4,000 are released each year on parole and become part of a population of 34,000 offenders statewide on parole or other post-prison supervision, which is part of the community corrections program that took a $6.6 million budget cut as of July 1, according to DOC.