A new study shows that Oregonians are divided on whether or not Oregon inmates nearing the end of their sentence or those considered a "low risk" to the community should be released from prison due to the threat of COVID-19.
Inmates in Oregon prisons are currently unable to practice the social distancing guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to slow the spread of COVID-19. The study, conducted by Portland polling firm DHM Research, finds that 68 percent of Oregonians oppose the general release of inmates from jail and prison to meet social distancing guidelines. More Oregonians are open, however, to the idea of releasing inmates who meet certain criteria.
Researchers found that 51 percent of Oregonians are in favor of releasing inmates who have less than 12 months remaining on their prison term and 49 percent support releasing inmates who are "deemed low risk" to the public. Only 36 percent of Oregonians support early release of medically fragile inmates.
Opinions were starkly divided by political affiliation. According to DHM, which surveyed 900 adult Oregonians between April 17 and 22, Republicans were much less supportive of releasing prisoners than surveyed Democrats. Sixty-six percent of Democrats support releasing low-risk inmates, compared to 38 percent of Republicans, and 61 percent of Democrats were in favor of releasing people with under a year left on the term, compared to 31 percent of Republicans.
This data comes two weeks after Gov. Kate Brown said she wouldn't be approving early releases for any Oregon inmates due to COVID-19. Governors in other states, like Washington, Maryland, and Kentucky, have already begun granting early release to prison inmates who meet certain criteria.
Since Brown's announcement, inmates have reported a continuous inability to socially distance themselves in crowded, open-air dormitories, a lack of adequate cleaning supplies or clean laundry. As of Friday morning, COVID-19 has been detected in 12 staff and 13 inmates within Oregon's 14 prisons.
On Friday afternoon, advocacy groups across the US held protests by car demanding state prisons lessen their populations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside. One of those protests took place in Salem, where activists drove by the Oregon State Penitentiary with banners reading "Decarcerate Now" and "Mass Release Now."
On April 3—three days before Brown's announcement—a group of civil rights attorneys filed a federal class action lawsuit against Brown and the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC), arguing that prisoners were being subjected to "cruel and unusual punishment" by not being able to adequately protect themselves from the virus.
Asked Thursday whether Brown has any plans to improve social distancing guidelines within Oregon prisons, Liz Merah, a spokesperson for Brown's office, said the governor is following the CDC's COVID-19 guidelines for correctional detentions.
"The governor has directed DOC to take necessary steps to protect the health and safety of staff and adults in custody," Merah wrote in an email to the Mercury.
Meanwhile, anxieties about inmates' health continue to mount behind bars. Steven Straub, an inmate at Columbia River Correctional Institute (CRCI) in Portland, told the Mercury Tuesday that more inmates in the minimum security men's prison have been having anxiety attacks and other mental health crises due to the threat of COVID-19. Due to the pandemic, inmates have reduced access to behavioral health clinicians and therapists.
"It's frightening to realize that we can't get help when we need it the most," Straub said.
"I've been reading news stories about people on the outside having mental health problems because they're isolated inside their homes, unable to see their family or friends, and they aren't able to practice their normal routine," said Straub. "That's the life we live everyday without the COVID-19 virus. This just makes it worse."