Some criminal justice advocates are urging Oregon's governor to declare mass incarceration a public health issue after a survey of more than 140 incarcerated women at Wilsonville’s Coffee Creek Correctional Facility found health issues inextricably linked to imprisonment.
The survey released Wednesday by the Oregon Justice Resource Center found women battling mental and physical illnesses at each stage of their criminal case.
Nearly 70% reported being under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they were arrested. More than 60% said they were experiencing symptoms of mental illness while being questioned by police. And the same percentage reported developing new medical problems after entering Coffee Creek.
“Looking at these numbers, they’re really alarming,” the center’s executive director Bobbin Singh said, though he warned the pool of women surveyed was too small for the results to be statistically significant.
Nevertheless, he believes the data points to a trend disturbing enough to warrant action by the state. The report recommends the governor “declare through an Executive Order that mass incarceration is a public health issue.”
“It’ll signify a paradigm shift in how we think about the criminal justice system and how we think of those drivers of incarceration,” Singh said. "It begins to put us on a path of really thinking about how to allow evidence, medical research and social science guide our decision in these policies.”
If the governor issued that order, Oregon would likely be the first state to declare incarceration a public health issue. But local governments have recently been toying with the idea. In March, San Francisco's health commission officially designated incarceration a public health issue. And this week, BuzzFeed News reported that New York City's health department had warned "even brief contact with the police or indirect exposure" is bad for your health.
Wednesday’s report also recommends those responsible for sentencing take into account when “a person’s fundamental rights are in jeopardy because of vulnerabilities related to mental and physical health and drug use issues.”
Singh said women are rarely given a chance to present mitigating evidence — such as addiction or an abusive partner — when sentenced. He gives the example of a woman convicted of child abuse, who hurt her children because she believed she would inflict less pain than her abusive husband.
“What we see is these women come with very complicated histories,” Singh said. “And those are the things we want to begin to think about: How do we begin to allow these histories or circumstances to be included [at sentencing]?”
The survey found three-quarters of incarcerated women had a history of homelessness and a diagnosis of mental illness. Forty percent reported trying drugs and alcohol between the ages of 10 and 12.