Former Portland chief, Multnomah County sheriff picked to run Oregon prisons

By Conrad Wilson (OPB)
Oct. 24, 2023 6 p.m.

Mike Reese takes over at a time when the agency faces scandals and massive staffing challenges.

Mike Reese, a longtime leader in Portland-area law enforcement, will be the next director of the Oregon Department of Corrections.

Gov. Tina Kotek named the former sheriff of Multnomah County and chief of the Portland Police Bureau to the position Tuesday.

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“The governor’s staff reached out to me and asked if I was interested,” Reese said. “I didn’t know that the position was open. And after a conversation with the governor’s staff and the governor, I felt really strongly this was the right opportunity for me and an opportunity to jump back into public safety.”

Reese comes to the prison system as an outsider to state corrections but not law enforcement. He retired as the Multnomah County Sheriff last year. Reese took over in 2016 as sheriff, a job that includes running the state’s largest county jail operation.

Former Portland Police Chief Mike Reese is sworn in as the interim Multnomah County sheriff on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016.

Former Portland Police Chief Mike Reese is sworn in as the interim Multnomah County sheriff on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016.

Amelia Templeton / OPB

During his tenure as Multnomah County sheriff, Reese oversaw the county correctional system’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which included reducing the number of people entering the facility. Last spring, the county auditor released a report that determined conditions in the county’s two jails are worse for people in custody who are Black and those who have mental health conditions.

From 2016 through 2022, at least nine people died in the county’s jail, according to death in custody data. By comparison, six people have so far died this year in Multnomah County’s jails.

“The safety of the community has long been a top priority for me,” Reese said. “I’ve spent literally my entire professional career working to protect and serve in local, county and now state operations.”

The Oregon Department of Corrections has a roughly $2 billion budget and houses roughly 12,000 adults in custody across 12 prisons.

Reese takes over a sprawling state agency that has required and relied on correctional officers to work overtime shifts to maintain staffing levels. The agency employs more than 4,000 people.

“The biggest challenge for the organization is staffing,” Reese said “In Oregon, certainly a lot of organizations are really struggling to fill vacancies. DOC is no exception to that. And we’ve got a lot of work to do to recruit and retain staff and do everything we can to improve employee wellness. The folks that are doing that front-line service, we’ve got to make sure they feel good about their work and the organization. I’m really going to focus internally as I hit the ground.”

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Oregon is also facing a lawsuit over its response to the pandemic inside its prison that could cost the state millions of dollars.

A wall and guard tower at Oregon State Penitentiary prison.

Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Ore., May 19, 2021.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

The state’s prison system has faced a series of sexual abuse scandals, most notably involving a nurse at the Coffee Creek Correctional Institution, Oregon’s only prison for women. Last week, a federal judge sentenced former Coffee Creek nurse Tony Klein to 30 years in prison after a jury convicted him of sexually abusing nine women. Federal prosecutors say it was the largest case the U.S. Department of Justice has prosecuted in terms of the number of charges and victims.

A report released in August, funded by state lawmakers found Coffee Creek fails to support incarcerated women.

Along with all those ongoing crises, Reese faces the systemic challenges of incarcerating people with underlying mental health needs and substance abuse disorders, many of whom require treatment and ongoing medical care.

“I have confidence in incoming Director Reese’s ability to bring a clear vision and advance the organizational and cultural changes needed to bring forward the next chapter at DOC,” Kotek said in a statement. “He has an unparalleled record within the public safety sector for being a collaborator and a problem solver, guided by justice, equity, and a commitment to uphold the public’s trust.”

Oregon’s former prison director, Colette Peters, left last year to run the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. Throughout her tenure, Peters pushed the agency to prioritize and humanize those in custody and sought to model Oregon’s prison system after Norway’s. The approach became known as the “Oregon Way” and aimed to shed the traditional punitive culture of prison. But the approach neither solved the problems prison leaders face nor did it dramatically change how prisoners were handled. Reese didn’t commit to keeping the model but also didn’t say he would do away with it either.

“I’m certainly going to first learn about the scope of the operation, the institutions, and the good work that’s being done,” Reese said. “The opportunity to improve public safety across the state of Oregon is centered on the Department of Corrections. If you think about the adults we have in custody, if we provide them with resources and treat them with dignity and respect, we can have a profound, positive impact on them. And if they don’t recidivate our community is safer.”

Reese was sheriff during Portland’s 2020 racial justice protests, which became a central part of the presidential election. During one debate, then-President Donald Trump claimed to have the support of the “sheriff of Portland,” a comment Reese quickly rebuffed.

“In tonight’s presidential debate the President said the ‘Portland Sheriff’ supports him,” Reese said at the time on X, the social media platform formally known as Twitter. “As the Multnomah County Sheriff I have never supported Donald Trump and will never support him.”

Reese has been mentioned, particularly among influential members of Portland’s business community, off and on as a potential candidate for mayor. He acknowledged at least considering the possibility this summer. But on Monday, he dismissed that idea.

“This is the next opportunity for Mike Reese and I’m really looking forward to it,” Reese said. “Running for elected office is no guarantee you’re going to get elected. And this is an opportunity to actually step back into public safety and to do everything I can to protect and serve Oregonians.”

Reese is set to start Nov. 13. His annual salary will be $241,224, according to the governor’s office.

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Audit: Multnomah County jail conditions worse for Black people, mentally ill

Conditions in Multnomah County's two jails are worse for people in custody who are Black and those who have mental health conditions, according to an audit released Wednesday by Multnomah County. In response, Sheriff Mike Reese said he’s “committed to evaluating our policies and practices” to uphold the community’s expectations.