UPDATE (2:57 p.m. PT) – The Oregon Department of Corrections is eliminating the state's death row, the agency announced Friday.
Death row inmates largely live together in a unit at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.
Prisons officials stressed the elimination of the physical space that houses death row does not mean inmates’ death sentences will change. It also won't affected their security level.
DOC Director Colette Peters told OPB it's also in line with philosophical changes at the agency.
"This really is an operational decision, in line with some of the humanity and normalcy work that we've been doing, as we look at reducing the use of segregation," Peters said. "Truly, we believe there are a handful of those individuals that can safety be housed in general population."
In the last 50 years, Oregon has executed just two death row inmates. Voters have repeatedly implemented and repealed it from the state’s constitution.
In 2011, then-Gov. John Kitzhaber implemented a moratorium on executions, a policy Gov. Kate Brown has continued.
Currently, 29 inmates in Oregon are sentenced to die. Of those, 27 live together at the Oregon State Penitentiary. They will be moved to general populations and other housing units in the state's six maximum security prisons.
Two other inmates convicted of capital crimes already live in other prisons, including Angela McAnulty, the only woman in Oregon with a death sentence. She lives at the Coffee Creek Correctional Institution.
The current death row building houses space for some 40 inmates, exceeding the current and future needs of the prison system.
Last year, Oregon lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1013, narrowing the definition of aggravated murder, the only charge under state law that carries capital punishment. The change meant far fewer inmates are receiving a death sentence.
The building that currently houses death row inmates will be turned into a new disciplinary segregation unit, the agency said, that is both safer and provides some much needed cost savings for the agency; about $104,000 in the current biennium.
In 2016, the Vera Institute of Justice — a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reforms — recommended Oregon DOC shutter its death row and incorporate those inmates into other prison populations.
The report noted that inmates on death row face similar restrictions and lifestyles to those in the general population.
“At the time of Vera’s study, only one woman at [Coffee Creek] was on death row status,” the report stated. “She did not have access to the same types of activities or congregate opportunities as the men because there were no other women on death row status with whom she could socialize.”
Vera Institute said by moving the inmates, the Department of Corrections would free up space at the Oregon State Penitentiary and the Coffee Creek prison.
“It would also help relieve the burden at CCCF of providing individual privileges and dayroom space to the one woman on death row status and alleviate the isolation experienced by that woman due to her status as the only woman on death row in Oregon,” the report stated.
While DOC has been working on the plan for some time, the news took many by surprise.
The agency notified victims Friday morning.
The Oregon District Attorneys Association said dissolving death row raises significant concerns, though acknowledged they didn’t know the full details.
“These inmates have committed the most heinous of crimes,” said Paige Clarkson, Marion County district attorney and ODAA president. “Keeping them in permanent isolation from society is but a small consequence in comparison to what they have done. And yet it still serves as one form of appropriate punishment for their crimes and keeps our neighborhoods safe, even if execution was never a real possibility in this state under recent governors.”
Clarkson also raised concerns about the safety of other inmates in DOC custody, noting that several of the inmates on death row have killed other inmates.
“Many have abysmal criminal and disciplinary records from their numerous prior incarcerations including threatening staff, crafting weapons and assaulting people while in custody,” Clarkson said. “They pose a continual risk to correctional officials, medical professionals, educators and other inmates should they be walking free in general population.”
Peters, the DOC director, defended the decision to move death row inmates to general population by saying there are other serious offenders in their custody who already live in those units.
Groups like the ACLU of Oregon and the Oregon Justice Resource Center applauded the decision. They noted there’s already a moratorium on executions as well as the changes to state law have made future death sentences far less likely. They said this is just the next logical step for a state that’s moving away from capital punishment.
"We commend this move by Governor Brown, which aligns Oregon with states that are leading in the effort to build more just and fair criminal legal systems," Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project said in a statement. "Since 1976, more than 165 people have been exonerated from death row for crimes they did not commit — the death penalty makes the mistakes and racism of the justice system permanent. There is just no excuse for these punishments in any country we would aspire to be.”
OJRC's Alice Lundell went so far as to call on the governor to use this as an opportunity to commute all death sentences in the state, saying Oregon is not a death penalty state in practice or culture.
"Let’s end the charade of Oregon’s death penalty," Lundell said. "An honest, objective discussion about the death penalty quickly reveals there is no evidence that it increases public safety or community well-being."
DOC expects the death row housing to be emptied by early July.