Oregon State Penitentiary (Courtesy/Wikimedia Commons)

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has asked the state Department of Corrections to identify incarcerated people at risk of having a severe reaction to COVID-19 for early release.

Prison systems in Oregon and elsewhere have come under scrutiny during the pandemic because their tight spaces make social distancing difficult if not impossible. According to the most recent Department of Corrections figures, 167 inmates and 48 staff have tested positive for the virus. The Oregon State Penitentiary, the state’s only maximum security, facility has seen the largest concentration with 35 staff and 133 inmates testing positive.

In a letter sent Friday, Brown asked department Director Colette Peters to perform “a case-by-case analysis” of incarcerated individuals for possible commutation of their sentences. Brown said that these individuals must be medically vulnerable and must not pose “an unacceptable risk to public safety.”

“Given what we now know about the disease and its pervasiveness in our communities, it is appropriate to release individuals who face significant health challenges should they contract COVID-19,” said Brown.

Brown listed other criteria incarcerated individuals must meet to be eligible to have their sentences commuted. They include not serving a sentence for a “person crime” (such as rape or murder) having served at least half their sentence, having a record of good conduct for the last 12 months, having a suitable housing plan as well as having their out-of-custody health care needs assessed and adequately addressed.

Brown asked Peters to produce a list of eligible individuals by June 22. Those eligible will be tested for COVID-19 and will be isolated and subject to treatment if they have the virus, she said in the letter. They would be eligible for release once they no longer show symptoms and test negative. The department will still follow its victim notification process for approved commutations.

The department currently faces a lawsuit filed on behalf of medically vulnerable inmates over its handling of the pandemic. Brown had resisted releasing prisoners earlier in the pandemic. In her letter, Brown noted that “there are limits to the department’s ability to implement physical distancing in a correctional setting.”

The Oregon Justice Resource Center, a civil rights group involved in the lawsuit, applauded Brown’s move. 

“We’re glad the governor has made the right choice in preparing to release people who are most vulnerable to serious and even fatal harm if they contract COVID-19,” Bobbin Singh, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “We’re concerned that the number of cases of the disease continue to grow in prison and we look forward to hearing more from Governor Brown about how she plans to address this.”

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Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.