Conditions inside Oregon’s only prison for women are dire and unsafe, according to a report released Thursday by the Oregon Justice Resource Center, a Portland-based nonprofit that advocates for people in custody.
Women at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility report deteriorating mental health driven by near constant lockdowns that require them to remain in their cells, sometimes for days on end, due to staffing shortages, the report states.
“[One officer] talks to people like they’re pieces of crap,” according to a person in custody who is quoted in the report. “She says things like, ‘you’re my job security, so the more stuff I do to you, the longer you’ll stay in here.’ She calls [adults in custody] ‘F-ing C---.’”
The report captures the experiences of hundreds of women at Coffee Creek. It is based on the conversations the Oregon Justice Resource Center’s Women’s Justice Project had with dozens of women during the last three years. All of the women are quoted anonymously to protect them from retaliation, according to the report.
Department of Corrections acting director Heidi Steward said in a statement she was reviewing the report in detail.
“I recognize there is always room for improvement, and we are committed to making prisons safe and secure while humanizing our environment and providing quality treatment and programming,” Steward said. “It is also important to remember the last several years have been incredibly challenging for adults in custody and employees alike. Employees face mandatory overtime, which is impacting their health and personal lives.”
Steward’s statement said the agency would continue to work towards “positive outcomes” for both those who live and work at Coffee Creek. According to the report, achieving those outcomes could be a challenge, as some women who have been in Coffee Creek for years report experiencing some of the worst conditions they’ve lived through.
“I was closer to killing myself this last summer than during the 20 years that I’ve been here,” a woman incarcerated at Coffee Creek told the report’s authors last year.
“There’s so much self-harm in here,” said another woman at the prison. “And there’s a lot of overdoses, at least one every other week.”
Many said measures implemented during the pandemic now appear to have become the new normal.
“We’re stuck in our cells all day long, so it’s hard, especially when we have to eat in our cells,” another woman at the prison told OJRC. “There’s a stagnant and negative energy. It’s inhumane at some point, you know? It changes you … you become stagnant, in a haze.”
According to the report, Black and Indigenous women at the prison have reported being called racial slurs, bullied by staff, or singled out for discipline.
Former corrections director Colette Peters championed a less punitive, more humane approach to incarceration coined the “Oregon Way.” It was based in part on the idea that almost all people in prison eventually are released and the prison system should focus more on rehabilitation than punishment. During Peters’ tenure, staff were sent to Norway, in 2017 and 2018, to learn how that country’s focus on rehabilitation could translate to the Oregon Department of Corrections. Peters left Oregon last year to head the Federal Bureau of Prisons and Gov. Tina Kotek has not named a replacement.
“Coffee Creek is continuing to regress back to the old ways of treating inmates and away from the ‘Oregon Way’ of humanization and normalization that [the Oregon Department of Corrections] pushes to the public as their direction,” one woman at Coffee Creek told OJRC. “It feels like we have gone backwards by 10 years.”
The report notes that many women understand and accept why they’re in prison.
“At the same time, they explain, with justified indignation, ‘this is not supposed to be part of our punishment,’” the report states. “They perceive that the abysmal treatment at [Coffee Creek] is an additional, invalid, gratuitous punishment, one that is imposed with little oversight. Taken together, the reports from [women in custody] are a call to the outside world to see that the way they are being treated is not ethical, just, or sensical.”
According to state records, the Wilsonville prison currently houses approximately 860 women between a minimum and medium facility.