The female prison population quadrupled from 324 women in 1994 to approximately 1,300 this year, according to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission. [2016 photo by Beth Nakamura / The Oregonian]

Easing the prison crunch

Oregon's prison for women is filled beyond its capacity, forcing state lawmakers and counties to look for ways to address the burgeoning female prison population.

With a capacity of 1,253 women, the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville just south of Portland is chronically full, says Jamie Breyman, Oregon Department of Corrections Office of Population Management administrator.

"We've been sitting at 1,300. It ebbs and flows daily," she says.

The prison has added more double bunk beds, but the influx of women is straining everything from toilets and showers to the heating and cooling system. The prison is also having to feed and clothe more people, Breyman says.

The Oregon Legislature has been loathe to open another prison for women, which would cost an additional $17.5 million during every two-year budget cycle.

Instead, legislators in 2017 repealed many aspects of Measure 57, which state voters passed in 2008. The measure increased prison sentences for drug and property crimes, while also lowering the number of crimes needed to trigger a prison sentence, says Oregon Criminal Justice Commission Director Mike Schmidt.

"They really tried to unwind Measure 57 impacts for those crimes," he says.

Whether the legislative action will hold up remains unclear. While the Oregon Attorney General's Office has said the new law is constitutional, some circuit court judges around the state ruled against it this month, saying the Legislature didn't make the changes with a two-thirds majority.

Schmidt says Measure 57 has a disproportionate impact on women.

"You don't need as many priors before you go to prison, and when you go to prison, your sentence will be longer," he says. "That affected the female population most dramatically."

Female offenders are more likely than males to have committed drug and property crimes. Males account for more violent crimes, he says.

Males were harder hit by the better known Measure 11, a 1994 measure approved by voters that imposed mandatory minimum sentences for certain violent crimes.

"The story of women in prison in Oregon is largely a story of drug and property crimes," Schmidt says. "One of the reasons we saw a big jump in the female population is because Oregon passed Measure 57."

The female prison population quadrupled from 324 women in 1994 to approximately 1,300 this year, according to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.

Meanwhile, the statewide arrest rate for females has fallen.

Jackson County is an anomaly, with the arrest rate for females rising for both property crimes and violent crimes, according to statistics from the Criminal Justice Commission that look at arrests that resulted in finger-printing.

But in Oregon as a whole, the arrest rate for women dropped 40 percent for property crimes and 36 percent for violent crimes, according to a 2016 commission report.

"The arrest rate for women has steadily decreased over the last 20 years. Per capita arrests for men and women for property and violent crime are both down," Schmidt says. "Although we are arresting fewer men and women, the prison population keeps going up."

In 2016, 65 percent of women sent to prison went there because of drug and property crimes, compared to 43 percent of men, the report said.

Men outpaced women on violent crimes and sex crimes, the report found.

Women were most likely to land in prison because of first-degree theft, identity theft, delivery of methamphetamine, unauthorized use of a vehicle and first-degree burglary, the commission reported.

While the fight over Measure 57 continues, the state has partnered with counties to try and decrease the women's prison population while also addressing the root causes of crime for women.

"The Legislature would very much prefer not to open another prison for women," Schmidt says. "They would rather make investments in housing, treatment and therapy and allow women to remain in their communities to get those resources."

Jackson County is one of a handful of counties in the state taking part in pilot programs to not only ease the prison space crunch, but to break the cycle of criminal activity that has women returning again and again to jails and prison.

An alternative to prison

In 2015, the Oregon Legislature created the Family Sentencing Alternative Pilot Program.

Jackson, Deschutes, Marion, Multnomah and Washington counties are the first participants in the test program, which requires the cooperation of offenders, local child welfare offices, district attorneys and treatment providers.

The program allows small numbers of non-violent criminals who are the primary parents of children to be diverted from prison. They stay in their communities and take part in intensive supervision, addiction treatment and other programs.

Legislators hope the pilot prison diversion program will keep families together, prevent children from entering the overloaded foster care system and reduce the chances that offenders and their kids will be involved in the criminal justice system in the future.

The state is keeping a close eye on the test program and expects to report results in early 2019.

Jackson County Senior Deputy Parole and Probation Officer Tira Hubbard works with the 14 women and one man who are taking part in the test program locally. For her, spending time with their children is as important as spending time with the parents themselves.

Hubbard recalls one little boy who was terrified of police because his mom had been arrested, forcing him to be separated from her. After time in the program, his mom had changed her parenting style and become a better mother to him. He became so close to Hubbard that he would use her handcuffs on his teddy bear, giving the stuffed animal a "time-out."

Another boy keeps her in mind while he's at school.

"He's always giving me little drawings that he did in school and things like that because I've become a part of his life," Hubbard says. "And he's not in foster care because mom is in this program. And mom is not using, and mom is working and mom is taking care of him because she was in this program. And so he gets a lot of the benefits."

'A running start'

In another program, Jackson, Marion and Lane counties are taking in women who have up to 180 days left on their prison sentences.

Using money from an Oregon Department of Corrections grant, Jackson County accepts up to 20 women prisoners originally from Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties into its Transition Center, located between Phoenix and Talent.

The prison system screens the women, who can't have poor behavior or significant mental health issues or medical needs, Breyman says.

The Jackson County Transition Center provides housing, employment and education help, drug and alcohol treatment groups, counseling and more to local people involved in the criminal justice system. The majority of people living there are men, but it also has room for 46 women, according to Transition Center Program Manager Michael Hescock.

"It gives them a springboard to success," he says.

Transferring to a local transition center allows women prisoners to get established with local programs and search for work so they can sustain themselves once they're released from custody, Breyman says.

"Every opportunity we can give them to have a running start will contribute to their success," she says.

The state's partnerships with counties and the Oregon Legislature's move to roll back Measure 57 are helping to rein in the burgeoning population at the women's prison, Breyman says.

"The latest forecast indicated we are going to start seeing a decline in the female population. Previous forecasts showed a steady increase over 10 years," she says, noting that pushes off the need to open a second women's prison.

Ultimately, local and state officials hope the pilot programs will provide models for breaking the cycle of women's criminal behavior, while also helping them build productive lives in their communities so they don't return to prison.

"It's their best chance of not coming back here," Breyman says.

— Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or Follow her at



Share This Story