Attorneys Seek Release Of Oregon Inmates Kept Beyond Expected Sentences

By Meerah Powell (OPB)
June 12, 2020 3:15 p.m.

Oregon's largest coronavirus outbreak is linked to the state's prison system. But some women at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville say that despite the risk of living in close quarters, they are being held beyond their scheduled release dates.


In the latest series of legal actions arguing that Oregon’s prisons and jails are unsafe for incarcerated people during the coronavirus pandemic, the women say their prison sentences had been contingent on their completion of drug and alcohol treatment programs that were halted due to the pandemic.

Related: Prisons Have Oregon's Largest COVID Outbreak But Testing, Social Distancing Remain Scarce

The prison had suspended the programs March 13, the same date it suspended visitors and volunteers, causing some inmates’ release dates to be postponed for months.

But, Oregon attorneys are fighting that, seeking the women’s, and other inmates’, releases via legal petitions — citing the conditions that make prisons and jails so susceptible to coronavirus spread.

Tara Herivel, the lead attorney on the cases, is working with inmates at Coffee Creek and with incarcerated Oregonians statewide in prisons and jails including the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Two Rivers Correctional Facility in Umatilla, Deer Ridge Correctional Facility in Madras and the Jackson County jail.

Herivel, and the other attorneys she’s working with, are arguing that Oregon’s prisons and jails are dangerous without proper social distancing or personal protective equipment.

Herivel said she and other attorneys have reached out to corrections facilities throughout the state with habeas corpus petitions and are working with about 40 cases so far.

“When COVID hit, our clients became very alarmed about the fact that they’re in the absolute worst environment for the most part, in addition to, the environments like folks who are working in food processing and people who are in nursing homes — those and prisons are the top three most risky environments to be in for COVID, because it’s impossible to really implement social distancing,” she said.

Kelly Simon, interim legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, said attorneys at her office are filing amicus briefs, or friend-of-the-court briefs, in support of Herivel’s cases.

Related: COVID-19 Situation Worsens Inside Oregon Prisons

“When the Department of Corrections admits that they can’t implement necessary preventative measures like social distancing, that means that they’re not providing a safe environment for the people in their care,” she said. “And that means they’re violating the constitutional rights of the people in their care who are entitled to a safe living environment.”

The habeas petitions follow a federal lawsuit filed in April, in which a group of inmates argued the Oregon Department of Corrections was willfully and deliberately indifferent toward medical care for those in custody during the pandemic.

Oregon U.S. District Court Judge Stacie Beckerman issued an opinion June 1 finding that the corrections agency has “responded reasonably to the serious risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic,” but that case is still ongoing.

The majority of Herivel’s cases focus on women in alternative incarceration programs, or AIPs, at Coffee Creek. Many people are offered the opportunity to enter an AIP as part of a plea deal to lessen prison time.

Alicia Bruno opted to enter an AIP at Coffee Creek after being charged with felony theft and felony third-degree assault charges, linked to reckless driving in 2018.

Bruno said participating in the program actually increased her sentence — which she said was worth it.

“When that judge asked me the reasoning as to why I was in a car accident and the only reason I could have was that I was high. That’s hard to accept, that I hurt two people, and it’s hard to accept the fact that I was high for it,” Bruno said.

Bruno said she was offered a choice between 36 months in prison with no drug and alcohol treatment program or 48 months with a program.

“I made the choice to do 48 months with AIP to change my life,” Bruno said. “I’m 25.  I have a 6-year-old son and I could have died in that car accident. And so I have to change. I don’t want to hurt anyone else and I don’t want to hurt myself.”

Bruno was specifically approved for a mental health and trauma-based treatment program. She started it in early March, right before the full impact of COVID-19 became apparent.

Due to the coronavirus, the Oregon Department of Corrections, also known as DOC, later in March stopped visitations and halted programs that required outside contractors to come into prisons — including AIPs.

Coffee Creek Correctional Institution in Wilsonville is Oregon's only women's prison.

Coffee Creek Correctional Institution in Wilsonville is Oregon's only women's prison.

Allison Frost / OPB

“The DOC decides that, ‘We’re going to shut everything down. We’re going to stop visitation. We’re going to not allow contractors to come in — which are the councilors for the treatment program — and we’re going to take your guys’ [release] date, the date you’ve worked so hard for, that you guys have not gotten in any trouble for, that we told you you were going to have, we’re going to pull it,’” Bruno said. “‘We’re going to have you bring up all this trauma and deal with all of this stuff and tell you you’re six months to the gate, and we’re going to rip it from you.’”

Bruno’s release was originally set for the end of August, at the end of her participation in the recovery program. Now, she won’t be released until October 19.


Bruno said even though the DOC’s reasoning for not letting the program’s councilors into the prison due to coronavirus makes sense to her, other contract workers were still allowed in Coffee Creek.

“The regular DOC councilors came in, [Behavioral Health Service] came in, the soda machine guy came in, and he’s a contractor, so that’s really strange to me,” Bruno said.

Bruno said without the mental health and treatment program, she’s become depressed, hopeless and anxious.

“It’s already hard being in prison when you’re trying to change, when you’re really trying to make the best out of a bad situation,” Bruno said. “Yes, I put myself here. I made the choices I made, but I can also learn from those choices. Everybody makes mistakes.”

“And, it’s hard to be pulled around like you’re nothing, and it’s hard when the people that are supposed to be taking care of you, like DOC — you’re supposed to feel safe, and it’s hard when you don’t.”

Elizabeth Pace was three months into a six-month trauma-focused program when it was halted.

“My cohort sisters and I were at our most vulnerable when DOC cut us off from our councilors, our volunteers, and visitation from our families. All programming was gone — education, religious service and recovery support,” Pace said.

She said her group tried to continue as much of the programming activities on their own as they could.

Related: Oregon's Jail Population Down 45% During COVID-19 Crisis

“After two weeks, DOC administratively removed us from treatment, making us general population, so our meetings were considered unauthorized organization, and progressive discipline would be enforced if we did not cease our gatherings,” Pace said.

She said she has to stay at Coffee Creek an extra 30 days past her original release date.

“I’m taking more medication and have more trauma to process now once I go home,” Pace said.

Both Pace and Bruno said Department of Corrections Behavioral Health Service workers have come in to continue some drug and alcohol treatment, but they don’t offer the same trauma-focused programming.

The Oregon Department of Corrections said that all of its AIP programs have now been restarted at Coffee Creek as of May, with the exception of one — the program that Pace and Bruno were both in.

The Department of Corrections said the organization in charge of that program chose not to restart it, citing the health and safety of its staff, though now corrections employees are taking over so inmates can continue their work.

Even though the programs have all, for the most part, been restarted, “release dates have been impacted,” the corrections department said to OPB.

“This was not an easy decision for leadership at DOC. With the real threat of COVID-19, we needed to limit the number of people entering the institutions,” the agency said.

Chelsea Moser was half way through her treatment program, Turning Point, when it was suspended. She made it through Phase 1 of her program and had another phase to complete that was focused on coping skills.

Coffee Creek gave her the option to either extend her release date until November to complete the program or to just receive a certificate of completion and get out on her originally scheduled release date, in July.

She chose to get out in July, and said she would most likely have to continue drug treatment outside of Coffee Creek.

Moser said she has been hospitalized twice at Coffee Creek due to her anemia, which has compromised her immune system. She’s concerned that will increase her risk of complications if she were to contract the coronavirus.

“I’m hopeful that I make it through until then without getting sick,” Moser said.

The women said when inmates at Coffee Creek appear to have COVID-19 symptoms, they usually don’t end up reporting them, because people with symptoms are often sent into isolation.

The Department of Corrections confirmed that people suspected to have COVID-19 are placed into medical isolation — “a single cell with solid walls and a solid door that closes.”

The agency said that no inmates at Coffee Creek have tested positive for the coronavirus.

“The state was poised to facilitate these folks returning home,” Simon with ACLU of Oregon said of the women in Coffee Creek’s AIPs whose release dates have already passed. “Instead, they’re locked in one of the most dangerous environments designed in a pandemic like this one — which is a prison: Congregate living, people cycling in and out, lack of personal protective equipment.”

Herivel said that by the time many of the habeas cases make it to court, a lot of her clients may already have been released from prison or jail.

“We want to raise the volume for folks in prison so they’re not just forgotten about.”