Oregon Gov. Kate Brown prepares to commute more sentences of inmates vulnerable to COVID-19

By Lauren Dake (OPB)
Aug. 26, 2020 12:40 a.m. Updated: Aug. 26, 2020 4:36 p.m.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has plans to commute the sentences of more prison inmates who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

The Department of Corrections has seen some of the state’s biggest outbreaks of the disease, with 613 inmates and 177 staff who have tested positive for the virus. The department reported that 513 inmates and 139 staff members have recovered. Three inmates have died from the virus.


In June, the governor commuted the sentences of 57 people who are incarcerated.

The governor will only consider releasing inmates who are within two months of release, are not serving a sentence for a violent crime against another person, have suitable housing upon release, and have had good behavior while in custody for at least a year.

The governor asked the Department of Corrections for two estimates. First, for those who are medically vulnerable who meet all the requirements she listed. And second, for those who are simply within two months of release and meet all the other requirements, such as stable housing.

The Department of Corrections said there are 10 to 12 inmates who are medically vulnerable who could qualify and up anywhere from 300 to 400 inmates who are within two months of being released who could qualify, according to rough estimates.

“While DOC has acted quickly to meet the threat presented by COVID-19 and calibrated its approach based on the available evidence, there are limits to the ability to practice physical distancing in a correctional setting,” Brown wrote in a letter she delivered to the department. “Given what we now know about the disease and its pervasiveness in our communities, it is appropriate to review for potential release individuals who face significant health challenges should they contract COVID-19.”

The Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem is the oldest prison in Oregon and the only maximum security institution currently operated by the Oregon Department of Corrections.

The Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem had a significant outbreak of COVID-19. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has taken a cautious approach to releasing inmates who are vulnerable to the disease.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra / OPB

Before being released, the inmates must take a COVID-19 test. Adults in custody who are showing symptoms or who have tested positive will not be released.

The governor asked the Department of Corrections to respond to her by Sept. 18 with a list of inmates who meet the criteria.

The Oregon Justice Resource Center has been pushing the Department of Corrections to do more to slow the spread of COVID-19. This spring, it sued the department on behalf of inmates with underlying health conditions who are particularly vulnerable in the midst of the pandemic.

“Any effort to release more people from prison in order to allow physical distancing and protect people from the pandemic is beneficial. But we need more,” a statement from the justice resource center read. “The initial releases prompted by COVID represented only about 0.4% of the state prison population, nowhere near enough to make a difference to the spread of disease ... We’re encouraged by news of a second round of releases but we urge Governor Brown to go further.”

In April, Brown announced she would not release large groups of people early over concerns about COVID-19. The Department of Corrections presented Brown with numbers showing she would need to release around 5,800 inmates to create enough social distancing inside correctional facilities to significantly reduce risk. That equates to roughly 40% of the state's prison population.

The state’s prosecutors had raised concerns early on about large-scale releases and urged the governor to consider commutations on a more limited basis.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated how many Oregon inmates have died due to COVID-19. Three inmates have died. OPB regrets the error.