The state’s prison system regularly fails women in custody, according to a new report commissioned by lawmakers that also found “an immediate need for the state” to “invest in the women and staff” at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, Oregon’s lone prison for women.
The 229-page report, authored by researchers with the Women’s Justice Institute and the Center for Effective Public Policy, calls on the state and the prison system to make a number of changes. Among those recommendations is training for staff to better meet the needs of the women at the prison, many who have experienced sexual violence, substance abuse or other trauma prior to their incarceration. Other recommendations include improving investigations into sexual assault by hiring a senior officer at the prison solely responsible for overseeing the reporting process and ensuring women feel comfortable coming forward. Researchers also say Oregon should make it easier for women in custody to communicate with family either remotely or through prison visits, the report states.
Coffee Creek “is a culture in transition,” the report states. Despite the good intentions of some prison leaders and correctional officers, Coffee Creek is chronically understaffed, and corrections staff who do report to work lack training and are overly reliant on punitive measures, such as moving women from one housing unit to another, limiting the amount of time women can spend out of their cells or sending them to segregation.
“The facility leadership and many staff are committed to doing what is needed to improve the facility, and the residents show tremendous resilience despite the challenges they face in their lives and while incarcerated,” researchers wrote. “There is low morale among staff, and the majority of women reported that they do not feel emotionally safe or respected by staff.”
In response, Gov. Tina Kotek announced a panel to meet next month to start implementing the report’s recommendations. Kotek called the report “sobering to read” and also ordered Department of Corrections administrators to identify things they can do immediately to implement findings without costing taxpayers more money.
“It is incumbent on Oregon’s corrections system to ensure that the use of carceral settings yield the best possible public safety outcomes and set people up for successful reentry,” Kotek’s office said in a statement.
According to the report, Coffee Creek creates obstacles for incarcerated women who are trying to maintain a connection with their children and family. The report raises concerns the prison system was making it too difficult for incarcerated mothers to see or communicate with their children.
“I have been waiting to see my kids for a long time because of the process to get approval,” one woman at Coffee Creek said. “I can’t bond with my family.”
“These women are huge parts of their families, and they need opportunities to connect with them,” a Coffee Creek staff member said.
The report relied on interviews and written surveys with staff, prison leadership, women in custody as well as women who had spent time at Coffee Creek but are now free. Researchers also spent five days at the Wilsonville prison, observing, reviewing reports and conducting more interviews. The report includes comments from both prison staff and women in custody, who are quoted anonymously. More than 60 percent of the roughly 800 women at the prison completed a survey for researchers.
The Coffee Creek prison had “among the highest number” of reports of sexual harassment and abuse in 2021 “as well the overwhelming majority of ongoing investigations that year.”
Many of those reports were linked to a former prison nurse, Tony Klein. Last month, Klein was convicted of sexually assaulting nine women at Coffee Creek. He is set to be sentenced in October and faces the possibility of life in prison. The state also paid $1.87 million to settle civil lawsuits related to Klein.
Most residents and staff at Coffee Creek know how to report abuse, but “staff and residents reported concerns about the quality and timeliness of … investigations, as well as the protocols that are used after allegations are brought and during and after an investigation.” Those who report being mistreated by staff or others in custody, are placed in solitary confinement for their protection, the report alleges.
“When I first started here, I asked about false accusations and was told that residents who falsely accuse would be held accountable,” one Coffee Creek staffer told researchers. “They aren’t.”
Another woman in custody said the officers’ friends investigate allegations of abuse and harassment.
“I am waiting until I am out to report,” another woman in Coffee Creek said.
According to the report, Coffee Creek administrators made some improvements, including adding dozens of cameras and mirrors, privacy barriers in toilet stalls and showers, and windows on some closet doors.
Women also reported struggling to access appropriate clothing sizes, and bras and shoes that fit. People in prison are required to wear a uniform, supplied by the Department of Corrections. In some cases, the ill-fitting clothes cause medical issues.
“We have been defeminized from shoes to clothes,” one woman in custody said.
“I have dents in my shoulders because I don’t have a proper bra,” said another.
Heidi Steward, acting director for the Oregon Department of Corrections, said the agency is reviewing the report.
“Since (Coffee Creek’s) opening in 2001, research into — and the understanding of — women’s unique needs have evolved, and we look forward to maturing our programs and services,” Steward said in a statement.