Salem's Mill Creek Correctional Facility opened in 1929. Now, the minimum-security facility is scheduled to close July 2021. (Jake Thomas/Salem Reporter)

With state officials aiming to cut Oregon’s prison population, Gov. Kate Brown is moving forward with closing three prisons including Salem’s Mill Creek Correctional Facility.

Mill Creek, a 2,000-acre minimum-security prison located on Salem’s southeast edge, will be the first shuttered under the governor’s plan and will close its doors by July of this year. The facility has 201 prisoners and 52 employees.

Shutter Creek Correctional Institution in North Bend will close next in January 2022, followed by Warner Creek Correctional Facility in Lakeview in July 2022, under the governor’s plan.

Brown recommended closing the prisons in her recommended two-year budget submitted to the Legislature. According to Liz Merah, the governor’s spokeswoman, the closures will save the state $42.7 million while also avoiding ongoing maintenance and repair costs.

With the growth of Oregon’s prison population slowing because of criminal justice reforms passed in recent years, the state doesn’t need to maintain the facility’s costly capacity, she said. 

“The governor ultimately would like to reduce our state’s reliance on incarceration and invest more dollars in the program areas that work to prevent people from entering the criminal justice system, such as behavioral health, education, housing, and substance use disorder recovery and treatment,” Merah said.

Oregon’s current prison population is 12,658, down from 14,471 a year ago, according to the Department of Corrections.

The most recent Oregon Corrections Population Forecast, released in October, predicts that in 10 years there will be 13,611 prisoners in the state. With Oregon’s population expected to grow by 8.8% over the same timeframe, the incarceration rate (prison beds per 1,000 people) will drop by 10.7%, according to the forecast.

The forecast notes that since 2009, the Legislature has made multiple changes to the state’s criminal justice system, moving away from the 1990s tough-on-crime approach that caused a rise in Oregon’s prison population.

Shannon Wight, the deputy director of the criminal justice reform group Partnership for Safety and Justice, said that in 2013, Oregon was planning to build two additional prisons to accommodate its growing population. But further sentencing reforms, notably the 2013 Justice Reinvestment Act, reversed Oregon’s prison population trend by directing money away from incarceration and toward rehabilitation programs for people who commit lower-level drug and property crimes, she said.

“I think that we’ve realized that these policies from the 1990s aren’t making us stronger,” she said.

She said closing the three facilities will bring the state’s prison footprint in better alignment with its prison population. Oregon is on track to further reduce its prison population, pointing out that in November voters passed Measure 110, which decriminalized possession of small amounts of meth, heroin and other drugs.

Merah said that while the governor has the executive authority to move forward with the closures, she expects there will be further discussions with legislators who are gathered in Salem for the 2021 session.

State Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a Eugene Democrat who chairs the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, said he’s introducing legislation that would further chip away at Measure 11, a 1990s ballot measure that’s been criticized for increasing Oregon’s prison population.

“There are better ways of holding someone accountable and making sure that our resources are spent preparing these individuals to hopefully get the tools they need to be better neighbors,” he said.

Prozanski said that the prisons targeted for closure are aging facilities. He said that Mill Creek, which opened in 1929, has the highest amount of deferred maintenance.

“This is something that is not unexpected,” he said.

He said that a challenge in closing the prisons will be ensuring that prisoners aren’t packed into more confined spaces and exposed to Covid.

State Rep. Janelle Bynum, a Clackamas Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said in an email that her priority is protecting incarcerated individuals from the pandemic that is spreading in prisons. She said measures include securing testing, personal protective equipment and vaccinations.

“Any other issues are secondary at the moment and can be considered as the session progresses,” she said.

Zach Erdman, Department of Corrections operations and policy manager, said in an email that the department is developing plans for the closure of the facilities and relocation of the prisoners. He said that all of the incarcerated individuals at the prisons are within four years of their release.

Erdman said the department will work with unions to help staff relocate to another institution or worksite.

The Association of Oregon Corrections Employees, the union representing employees at Mill Creek, did not respond to phone calls seeking comment. 

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

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