Yoga classes, sports bras and more security cameras are coming to Oregon’s only women’s prison.
The changes at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility follow a state-ordered report released in August that found an unsafe, harsh environment and retaliatory culture that punishes women who report wrongdoing, including sexual misconduct.
Coffee Creek is a 508,000-square-foot facility, located on 108 acres in Wilsonville with about 870 female inmates. Besides the report, the prison has faced embarrassing scandals. A former nurse was recently sentenced to 30 years in prison for sexually assaulting incarcerated women, and a corrections sergeant currently faces charges of sexual misconduct.
In response to the report, Gov. Tina Kotek ordered the Oregon Department of Corrections to make immediate changes within 60 days and submit information about them to her office. Kotek also formed a secretive advisory committee that started meeting in September behind closed doors to make long-term recommendations about conditions for incarcerated women and how they are treated, housed and disciplined. That work is ongoing and will continue beyond the immediate changes.
The corrections agency sent a letter on Nov. 3 to Kotek’s office outlining its short-term plans to improve conditions for incarcerated women. The changes run the gamut from steps to improve their quality of life to more comfortable and appropriate clothing for their gender. Besides concerns about security, inappropriate pat-downs and retaliation, inmates told outside evaluators they felt disrespected with ill-fitting clothing and shoes.
“Since CCCF’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,” Heidi Steward, acting director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, wrote in the letter.
Advocates are closely watching. Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, said the changes represent good steps but fall short of addressing the systemic issues highlighted in the report. The center advocates on behalf of incarcerated Oregonians.
“There’s no mention of a review or audit of the discipline system or how it’s being used, or how individuals are receiving sanctions – and how to move to more progressive sanction systems,” Singh said, adding his organization will continue to work with the advisory panel and seek long-term changes.
In her letter, Stewart said the list “should not be exhaustive,” stressing the work continues with the advisory panel.
Changes already in place are aimed at addressing health care, the quality of life for inmates and more communication between the prison and incarcerated women. For example, a council with inmates will hear updates from the prison once every two weeks about its efforts to make improvements.
The facility has filled three vacant health services positions, hiring a medical services manager, a nurse manager and a second behavioral health manager. The prison also has more incarcerated women leading classes and programs, including yoga, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
The prison also made it easier for inmates to purchase smaller shoes after the report revealed women were forced to wear shoes that did not fit.
Oregon Corrections Enterprises, which provides work and training for offenders, has “designed and tested quality sports bras,” the letter said. The agency has ordered fabric and will start sewing bras for distribution.
The prison also has installed full-length mirrors, scales and new indoor and outdoor recreational equipment on all of the units. And inmate bands play music on a regular basis.
Within six months, the prison plans to install another 400 cameras throughout the facility to boost security and start town hall meetings with inmates with administrators who have the authority to make more changes, the letter said.
Changes ahead within the next year
Ahead within six months: more training for staff on how to respond to critical incidents, boundaries and professionalism.
The prison also plans to review rules and policies for the special housing unit. That unit holds incarcerated women when they are in a mental health crisis and inmates in disciplinary segregation, which is often called solitary confinement because of the limited contact with others.
In that vein, the prison plans to no longer automatically restrict an inmate’s ability to make video phone calls when they lose their privileges. In the future, that will be case-by-case.
The prison plans to identify more leisure and social activities like Zumba and other exercise classes and game nights, the letter said.
In another six to 12 months, the prison plans to determine if a work release program can work at Coffee Creek and supply women’s cut T-shirts and jeans to the inmates. The prison also plans to identify and seek funding for staff to continue the work long-term.
This story was originally published by the Oregon Capital Chronicle.
Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501(c)(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and X (formerly Twitter).