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To the Honorable Kate Brown, Governor of the State of Oregon:

We are calling on you to act immediately to protect the lives of the people impacted by the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC), including people in custody, staff at DOC, and the family members and communities of staff and those who are incarcerated. At this time, with the COVID-19 threatening the health and lives of untold numbers of people under your care and control, a current prison sentence in Oregon could turn into a death sentence for many.

Chapter 401 (2) of Oregon’s Emergency Management and Services states "During a state of emergency, the Governor has authority to suspend provisions of any order or rule of any state agency, if the Governor determines and declares that strict compliance with the provisions of the order or rule would in any way prevent, hinder or delay mitigation of the effects of the emergency." You have the power to immediately release people from prisons and thus work to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19.

COVID-19 outbreaks in Oregon prisons and jails will spread “like wildfire” due to close quarters, overpopulation, unsanitary conditions, overcrowding, and staff that come in and out of the prisons every single day. Moreover, overcrowding threatens the public at large, as thousands of individuals and correctional, medical, and other staff interact with the incarcerated population and return to their communities.

Further, overcrowding has led to too few health care professionals working inside the prisons to provide even an adequate level of care. By releasing the elderly and others who present a low public safety risk from the state’s prisons, it will reduce overcrowding and free up health care services to begin to properly address the remaining people kept inside the prisons. 

To this end, we are calling on you to immediately:

1. Release all medically fragile adults and adults over the age of 60 to parole supervision. Jails and prisons house large numbers of people with chronic illnesses and complex medical needs, who are more vulnerable to becoming seriously ill and requiring more medical care with COVID-19. And the growing number of older adults in prisons are at higher risk for serious complications from a viral infection like COVID-19. Releasing these vulnerable groups from prison and jail will reduce the need to provide complex medical care or transfers to hospitals when staff will be stretched thin. Individuals who do not have families or others that can offer housing should be released to re-entry facilities.

2. Release all people who have an anticipated release dates in 2020 to parole supervision. People who have been sentenced to determinate sentences and who would be released soon should be released immediately. The court has already decided that it is safe to release these adults into the community, and will be doing so in the very near future. This will limit overcrowding and free up beds in facilities that will be needed to care for the sick, allowing for recommended distance between individuals during this public health crisis.  

3. Expedite all review processes for people already found suitable for release, lift holds, and expedite the commutation process. For all people who have been found suitable for parole by the Board of Parole Hearings, we ask that you expedite the review process and release these parole candidates. 

4. Immediately suspend all unnecessary parole meetings. People deemed “low risk” should not be required to spend hours traveling to and from meetings, often on public transportation, to wait in administrative buildings for brief check-ins with their parole officers. As many people as possible should be allowed to check in by telephone. Further, people on parole who have been under supervision for three years or longer and have not had an arrest within the last 12 months should be discharged from supervision.

5. Lift all fees for calls to family members. As DOC has limited visits to people who are incarcerated, it is critical that these individuals be able to communicate with their family members and loved ones. All phone calls made by those who are incarcerated to their family members and loved ones should be made free during such time as family visits are limited.

6. Insist that DOC adequately address how they will care for people who are incarcerated. In addition to taking steps to immediately address overcrowding, all people who remain in custody should be cared for. We note that in all of the DOC information released thus far, there is a shocking lack of concrete details given as to the exact steps the DOC is taking to prevent infections, or to care for those who get sick. The DOC has stated that they will use the same protocols they use for other illnesses, which often means widespread lockdowns or isolating people without care. This approach is both cruel and inadequate. At the very minimum, all people who are incarcerated must have access to soap and running water. Hand sanitizer should be made widely available and possession of hand sanitizer should be allowed. Appropriate medications and treatment should be available to all without cost. People who are sick should be cared for by appropriate medical staff.

Governor, we know how seriously you take your duty to protect the lives of people living and working in Oregon’s prisons and the surrounding communities. As you know, the health, well-being and indeed the lives of these people are quite literally in your hands. We urge you to take immediate and decisive action now to save lives. We will support you in taking the bold, but necessary, action now to protect the health of every Oregonian, including the most vulnerable.