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Overcrowding Leads To New State Prison

Like thousands of other people, 34 Oregonians move into a spacious new home in Central Oregon Monday. But these movers have a higher profile than most other new emmigrants in the Bend area.

They are the first residents of the brand-new Deer Ridge state prison in the 5,000-person town of Madras. Central Oregon correspondent Ethan Lindsey went "on the inside" to take a look at the new the building and how it may help Oregon's overcrowded prisons.

Parrish Van Wert: "There's a training session going on right now."

Parrish Van Wert is the prison's community liaison.  He says the first thing a non-prisoner notices in the Deer Ridge minimum security prison is that there aren't any bars. Or metal doors or anything like that.

Parrish Van Wert: "What we have going on here is a training session for new officers on disciplinary holding cells. We don't have bars. We don't have mezzanines with toilet paper on fire being thrown down and disruption and chaos and disorder. That makes for good Hollywood movies, some good T-V shows, but that's not what actually takes place on the inside."

Built to house 644 inmates, the minimum security complex does seem a less scary place than Alcatraz. But, then again, it holds only the least dangerous prisoners who are least likely to escape.

Minimum security prisoners are all within 3 years of release. And the first inmates were all handpicked by the state's Department of Corrections specifically to avoid any problems that a brand-new facility might present.

Like what would happen if an extra screw driver was left behind, inside the fences. Or if the plumbing was installed incorrectly.

Parrish Van Wert: "Well, certainly, the first round of inmates will be our cooks, the laundry staff. There's a learning curve not just for the inmates but for the officers and staff as well."
After this minimum security prison is up-and-running, the state will begin to move residents into the new medium-security building next door.

That side will house almost twice as many inmates as this low-security site — and has about 3 times as much barbed wire and fencing to prevent escape.

As a whole, the new prison cost the state $193 million. It's the state's second new prison built in the past 3 years - and the 14th prison total.

The reason for the prison expansion is simple.

Even with the new construction, Oregon faces a problem of prison overcrowding. 13,300 inmates are currently incarcerated in the state, with just barely enough beds to sleep that many. And the inmate population is expected to top 14,000 by 2009.

Parrish Van Wert: "Currently our prisons are at capacity or beyond, so what we're going to do is relieve that pressure as we open the minimum facility."

Van Wert adds that the state decided to build the minimum-security side first because the state faces a much bigger crunch for those inmates.

In some ways the prison problem in Oregon is less vexing than in other states.

California has so many prisoners it's shipping many of its inmates to beds in Mississippi or elsewhere. And private prisons are being built at record levels. As a policy, Oregon does not send its prisoners out of state and has no private prisons.

Van Wert is actually an interesting case. At one time he was the director of the Madras Chamber of Commerce, representing local businesses. In that role, he was wildly outspoken in campaigning against the prison.

But after county voters approved the construction, he gave up his opposition. The city negotiated a permanent local work crew of 8 prisoners to do things like park clean-up.

And the state now employs 140 people at the prison — 67 are local hires. When it's fully built, Mayor Jason Hale says Madras will benefit from 400 new salaried jobs.

Kevin Sprouse has one of those jobs. He grew up in the area, but was working at the state prison in Salem until this year.

Kevin Sprouse: "I'm ready. It being a new facility, everything is new for everybody."

Despite Van Wert's change of heart, many in the community are still  upset over the prison.

Fears about prisoners escaping are one thing. But many say the real worry is that Madras will lose its economic steam, and become  just another "prison town."

Colleen Roseman is the director of the Children's Learning Center in town.

Colleen Roseman: "You know, anybody in education could argue that we build more prisons than schools. But I believe safety was at the top of the list when building this, so we don't feel like we're in any danger or anything like that."

Roseman says she thinks the prison is a good thing for the town and that she's already had an increase in enrollment.

As for those who continue to be anxious, corrections officers and researchers say their concerns are overblown.

For one thing, escapes are rare and unlikely. And for another, all inmates when they finish serving their sentence are released into their home county.

But prison spokesman Van Wert admits, the new prison will feel some growing pains.

Parrish Van Wert: "We'll have a lot of snow shovels, but all of that snow removal and ice work will be done by inmates. But we'll see how that goes on our very first snow storm this year. [LAUGH]"

Van Wert says for the rest of the year, every week Madras will get an influx of new prison residents.

And in February, the medium security prison will begin admitting inmates, which will require an even greater number of guards and a whole host of additional security concerns.

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