Oregon Gov. Kate Brown Won't Release Prisoners Over COVID Risks

By Conrad Wilson (OPB)
Portland, Ore. April 14, 2020 6:38 p.m.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said Tuesday she won't release inmates over risks surrounding COVID-19.

The decision comes the day after Brown received the information she requested about 2,836 inmates in the custody of the Oregon Department of Correction that met criteria for possible release: inmates with approved residences, those who were older and at higher risk from the coronavirus and those set to be released in the coming weeks and months, among other requirements.


Inmates inside the state's 14 prisons are at higher risk for contracting COVID-19 because the prisons are more than 95% full and social distancing efforts are extremely challenging. As of Monday, 13 inmates and staff had tested positive for the virus.

Brown said she would not release the inmates during a Tuesday press conference laying out a loose strategy on how Oregon may begin to reopen its economy.

"The question was, do I plan to early release adults in custody as a result of the COVID-19 crisis? The answer is no," Brown said while taking questions from the media.

She added that she was concerned about the presence of the coronavirus in state prisons and has reviewed a plan for containment from Department of Corrections Director Colette Peters.

"They are working hard to make sure our adults in custody and the staff remain safe," Brown said.

Brown has been under intense pressure from the Oregon District Attorneys Association to not release the inmates. ODAA said it opposes a mass release of prisoners because it is potentially damaging to crime victims, despite public health concerns.


After Brown's announcement Tuesday, ODAA put out statement urging for a more definitive action than a press conference statement.

"While we appreciate the Governor's comments today, it remains unclear what her official position is regarding the early release of nearly 3,000 inmates," ODAA said. "To our knowledge, Department of Corrections officials are still coordinating that massive list to assess those convicted criminals for early release."

Brown put out a statement late last week acknowledging she had requested information on vulnerable inmates.

"Whether an adult in custody should be released before the end of their sentence or not is a decision that must be weighed based on the individual merits of their situation," Brown said. "I want to be clear: at this time, I have no specific plans to abandon that case-by-case approach."

Advocates for inmates argue its important to reduce prison populations to protect workers, inmates and communities where prisons are located.

"Incarceration should not be a death sentence, and we will continue to advocate to make sure it doesn't become one," said Kelly Simon, interim legal director for the ACLU of Oregon.

Attorneys for inmates said they were hopeful the governor would still release individual inmates because of COVID risks.

"While she may not be open at this time for a mass release, she could release many individuals who are medically vulnerable and whose lives are at risk and/or those with scheduled release dates in the coming months," said Aliza Kaplan, a professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland who also represents clients in DOC’s custody. "Many governors from around the country, from both political parties, have done this already."

On Monday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced he was releasing nearly 1,000 inmates over COVID-19 risks. Advocates in Washington said it wasn't enough to achieve social distancing.

Last week, a group of inmates in Oregon's prisons sued the governor and DOC leaders over what they said was a lack of coronavirus preparedness and social distancing.