Jessica Rogers-Hall was released from Coffee Creek Correctional Facility as part of an effort to reduce prison populations in response to the Covid pandemic. (Jake Thomas/Salem Reporter)

Jessica Rogers-Hall didn’t believe she was getting out of prison.

She remembered being in her bed one night at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville when a corrections officer woke her asking about her parole plan.

“What do you mean my parole plan?” responded Rogers-Hall, who wasn’t scheduled for release.

She didn’t hear anything more for weeks. She was later called into the release counselor’s office who told her that she would be released from the state women’s prison and needed to find  someone to give her a ride.

In June, Gov. Kate Brown announced that in response to the Covid pandemic she would begin the process to commute the sentences of 57 prisoners who met certain qualifications, including being medically vulnerable and having a record of good conduct for the last year. Rogers-Hall was one of those inmates.

Now a free woman, Rogers-Hall, 38, said she’s overcome her addiction to meth and has changed as a person. The world around her has also changed. The pandemic has created new challenges for her transition and she’s unsure what she’ll do for work or long-term housing.

Despite it all, she said rolls out of bed every day happy. She’s reconnected with her 19-year-old daughter. She wants to go back to school, maybe with her daughter. But the reason for her upbeat attitude isn’t because she’s no longer in prison.

“People probably think it's weird,” she said sitting in a west Salem apartment. “But I love life and I love me and I'm finally okay with me.”

‘I didn't think there was any hope for me’

Three years ago, Rogers-Hall was arrested with a loaded handgun on a road outside of Silverton. She had attempted to flee police in the Silverton area after she threatened her now-former husband. Police used a spike strip to stop her car.

Rogers-Hall said the incident came after relapsing on meth. She said she was a “monster” who had hurt a lot of people including her two kids.

“I was a really, really, really damaged, broken person,” she said. “I didn't think there was any hope for me.”

She was sentenced in Marion County County Circuit Court to serve five years in prison after being convicted of identity theft, forgery, unauthorized use of a vehicle and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

She said she was mean and angry, picking fights with other women in prison.

“My first year in Coffee Creek was hell,” she said. “I was in the hole, like all the time.”

One day, she said she saw a sign for a class on insight and well-being. She didn’t care about the class but knew there would be cinnamon rolls. She signed up. The class changed her life.

Anna Debenham, executive director of The Insight Alliance, said she met Rogers-Hall during the program offered by her group. Debenham, whose nonprofit works with prisoners on mental health, described Rogers-Hall as scattered and frenetic but she could tell she had a lot of heart.

She watched her become calmer, kinder and not react harshly to everyday frustrations.   

Rogers-Hall said the program taught her to not latch on to negative thoughts and instead redirect her thinking. She said she now controls her dissociative disorder, a mental illness caused by childhood trauma that causes her to “check-out” when life becomes too stressful.

She said she no longer carries guilt or plays the victim. She’s forgiven others. She said she got her GED, took college courses, started writing and got published. She was on a segment of OPB’s “Think Out Loud” about women changing their lives in prison. She said she became more interested in advocating for her fellow prisoners than fighting them.

‘Warehouse of despair’

At home, Rogers-Hall held a tattered day-planner with a picture of a beach on the cover. Inside, are notes she said that describe the harassment and retaliation from prison staff over her class-action federal lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections for alleged sexual assault.

Reading from the planner, she described how she was berated for an hour for having an extra sheet, kept from her medication and put in solitary confinement. But she said wasn’t given a disciplinary report.

She also said she faced retaliation prison staff after talking to a reporter from VICE and other media. The department declined to comment, citing the litigation. 

The state prison agency faces a separate lawsuit from civil rights group Oregon Justice Resource Center on behalf of prisoners over its handling of the pandemic.

Rogers-Hall said that her dorm at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility housed 125 women, each on a bunk a foot away from each other. She described it as a “warehouse of despair.”

“It's hot. There’s no air conditioning,” she said. “And you get sick there and you're screwed.”

She said that if anyone showed signs of Covid, they were put in solitary confinement for 14 days. Prisoners would attempt to hide symptoms and instead lay in their bed for days, she said.

The Oregon Justice Resource Center in a statement called Brown’s approach “simply inadequate” and called on her increase testing in prisons and to further reduce prison populations.

Andy Ko, executive director of criminal justice reform group Partnership for Safety and Justice, said in an email that the outbreak in correctional facilities “could also have catastrophic effects in the communities that surround state prisons and, ultimately, across the entire state.”

But Rogers-Hall said she doesn’t want to dwell on the past.

‘So blessed’

Rogers-Hall was released from Coffee Creek on July 2 with a food stamp card, a stack of papers and a bag containing travel-size deodorant, shampoo, conditioner and a toothbrush. 

After being picked up outside the Wilsonville prison by her attorney, he said that the first thing she wanted to do was go to Fred Meyer to buy a normal bra after wearing sports bras for three years.

Rogers-Hall said she has a compromised immune system from cancer. She initially planned to stay with a friend in Salem. But after her friend came down with Covid that wasn’t an option. She stayed in a hotel until she got in touch with a friend who had an empty apartment he’s letting her use. She said she wants to work and support herself.  

“This doesn't happen to people to who get out of prison,” she said. “I am so blessed by the situation.”

After being released, Rogers-Hall recalled being struck by people wearing face masks or friends stepping back when she tried to hug them.

It’s also created obstacles for her transition. She is waiting a month for an appointment to get her driver’s license since state offices aren’t generally open.

The Oregon Department of Human Services has similarly restricted access to its offices, so she can’t arrange a food stamp card or other services.

To get by, her attorney brought her a food box. With a compromised immune system, she’s not sure what she’ll do for work.

But Rogers-Hall is confident everything will work out.

“I don't let myself sit back and worry, because if I did, I'd be high,” she said. “I'd be out there running amok. I can't do that again.”

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