Oregon’s new Department of Corrections boss discusses the challenges the agency faces

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
Jan. 23, 2024 2 p.m.

Mike Reese is likely a familiar name to many Oregonians. Most recently, he was a Multnomah County Sheriff, and before that, he served as Chief of the Portland Police Bureau. Now, he’s in charge of one of the largest agencies in the state, the Oregon Department of Corrections, with more than 12,000 adults in custody and nearly 4,000 employees. He has taken over at a time when the agency is facing multiple challenges — from staffing and smuggled drugs to poor conditions at the state’s only prison for women.

Former Portland Police Chief Mike Reese in 2013.

Former Portland Police Chief Mike Reese in 2013.

Allison Frost / OPB


“Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller recently interviewed Reese. The following excerpts from that interview have been edited for length and clarity.

On staff vacancies and hiring difficulties:

“Hiring anywhere in public safety, I believe right now is one of the biggest issues whether you’re a chief of police or a sheriff or you’re running corrections agencies across the United States … For us at DOC, I think what makes it even more challenging is that we’re hiring from some local markets like Pendleton and Umatilla where we’ve got some staffing issues. We’ve got a lot of competition from Amazon or other large employers there and our hiring practices because we want to make sure we’re hiring the right people for this job (and) it takes a while to vet them.

So when you start that employment process with us, it’s a written test. It’s also going to require psychological exams, medical tests. All of that takes time, the background process. So three to four months after you’ve applied is when you’re going to start. Amazon may start you a week later. … It’s really dire and the staff are working a lot of mandatory overtime shifts and that’s hard on them and their families. We’re doing everything we can to be agile, maybe moving populations of adults in custody from one institution to another to help relieve some of that strain on staff because some of our institutions are fully staffed.”

On the issues at Coffee Creek women’s prison:

“I think the gender-informed practices assessment, the GIPA report, is a roadmap for us to be successful, not just at Coffee Creek but across all of our institutions. I think there’s some brilliant thinking and how we can have a gender-informed approach to corrections and we’ve got a lot of work to do at Coffee Creek. We have really committed staff that want to do that work. … We are in the process of issuing appropriate clothing to the women in custody, not clothing that was designed for the men, but clothing that’s designed for the women.”


On holding staff accountable for misconduct:

“Criminal misconduct of any nature by a corrections professional is reprehensible, and we’re going to hold that person accountable. And it really upsets me personally and our staff that are doing good work when we have somebody engage in that misconduct because it takes away from our credibility and our legitimacy and paints all of us with a broad brush. So I think setting clear boundaries and having discipline systems that work and that hold people accountable.”

On drug use inside prisons:

“I think you have to look at the underlying issue that’s driving some of that behavior by the adults in custody. Over 60% of our adults in custody have a substance use disorder and about 10% of that is an opioid issue. So there is a desire by those folks that have used and abused drugs in the past to try and acquire them while they’re in custody and they’ll use whatever means possible. We have some interdiction efforts underway. The legislature in the last biennium provided funding for two canine officers and the drug detection dogs. So we’re currently selecting the officers and then we’ll match them with the dog and send them to training. … We have mail staff that are looking through the mail. Every piece of mail gets reviewed that’s coming through for just those substances that you’re talking about.”

On drug treatment inside prisons:

“Because of the impact of opioids in our community, we’ve got to start providing treatment to those folks coming into custody that lasts throughout the time that they’re incarcerated. In the past, we’ve had breaks in that. So if somebody comes in and they’re on methadone, if they’re a woman and they’re in custody and pregnant, we’re going to continue that methadone treatment for a while while they’re in custody, and then they’re going to go off of that and go back on maybe Suboxone or something 13 months before they’re released or a year before they’re released. We know now that what we have to do is provide that treatment throughout the time that they’re incarcerated.”

On what happens to people after they are released from prison:

“I would expect that the recidivism rate would drop when we start using evidence-based practices and providing people the treatment resources they need, whether it’s a mental health issue or a substance use disorder issue. … We’ve got some great employment opportunities and skill building that we’re doing in custody so that when people leave our custody, they’re employment-ready and some of them are stepping into really high-paying jobs in the construction industry or into other positions in our society. … Our job in corrections is to provide the resources that help people be successful when they leave. Ninety percent of the folks in our custody are going back into the community.

They have a release date when they get released. We’re going to make our community safer if they don’t reoffend.”

Mike Reese spoke to “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller. To hear more of the conversation, click the play button below: