The issue of prison reform and funding has become a front-page issue recently in the state of Oregon. Taxpayers and lawmakers are both very concerned about public safety and the money used to pay for this safety. The Thursday (Jan. 31) edition of the Bend Bulletin newspaper had a frontpage article regarding a proposed $10.9 million jail expansion plan. I have recently taken a great interest in these matters, as I have been incarcerated in Deschutes County Adult Jail for the last six months, fighting a pending case. I've had the ability to experience the inner workings of County Jail first-hand. What I've witnessed confirms that this is a big business, more concerned about money than rehabilitating people.
This may be common knowledge to some, but the extent that this is true has been far overlooked by the media. It's no surprise that Deschutes County Sheriff Larry Blanton proposed and supports the $10.9 million expansion of the current jail. It's really job security! Deschutes County Commissioner Tammy Baney believes that the capacity to house juvenile offenders should be expanded, although the current juvenile facility is "woefully underutilized." Apparently she is disappointed that there are not more youths incarcerated. And this really is the key point in this issue. An empty jail simply does not speak to taxpayers/voters the need for more funding dollars. The "criminal justice" business is reliant on higher inmate populations to keep profits rolling. I find it troubling that in this whole article there is no mention about other options for using the $10.9 million. No suggestions about rehabilitating inmates, developing programs to help get people back into the community as highly functioning individuals. Rather, local commissioners and sheriffs are planning for an increased inmate population in the future to ensure jobs and profits in an already struggling local economy. In a localized area that is much removed from the state authorities in Salem, I would ask what are the real costs of this mode of thought? And would argue that society will bear a greater cost in the future for treating people in this manner.
In the Saturday (Feb. 2) edition of The Bulletin, prison reform is mentioned in another front-page article. Once again Deschutes County Sheriff Larry Blanton is mentioned, this time opposing a proposal by Gov. John Kitzhaber. The proposal calls for more leniency in sentencing guidelines, to ensure a more reasonable inmate population. The state Public Safety Commission hopes to change sentencing laws associated with Measure 11 and Measure 57's tough-on-crime stance. Perhaps people are starting to realize that locking away first time offenders for years, with no good time eligibility, is not working. It's jamming up the system and draining public funds. Not to mention the medium-security state prison in Madras that is sitting empty due to lack of funding. Clearly there is a discrepancy between certain agendas and the realities of imprisoning people. This is not a sustainable business model, nor one that is ethical.
For those who argue that incarcerating certain people is somehow beneficial, I would invite them to stay a week in County Jail. Experience firsthand about what "good" it may be doing. And realize that the living conditions are inhumane, and do more to fuel the fire than heal and rehabilitate. Then examine certain county jail websites and realize how many people have served months and years, just in county detention. Try to fathom the mental and emotional trauma that is experienced by individuals who are innocent until proven guilty. I recall a recent case in Deschutes County, involving William Naftel. He was held at Deschutes County Jail for more than a year at $500,000 bail. He was facing eight serious charges, and ignored any plea deal, deciding to take his case in front of a jury. He was found not guilty on seven of the charges, and only convicted of a DUI, his first. He was released promptly from jail and the issue was quickly swept under the carpet, away from the public eye. But in the end, an innocent man spent a year of his life incarcerated, and nothing can take that back.
Sheriff Blanton says, "You can hope you don't have an increase in the size of the inmate population, but it will have to be a person a lot smarter than me to figure it out." I think that is a call for people to get involved in this issue. Citizens, inmates, commissioners, lawmakers and enforcers. Take a realistic look at the current criminal justice system. Change the focus from blame and punishment to understanding and healing. Strive for real reform, not just more of what seems comfortable. Because living in jail or prison is anything but comfortable. And it should not be so easily accepted as common practice, let alone a legitimate business.
Stephen Kemm Mitchell
Stephen Kemm Mitchell is being held in Deschutes County Jail on charges related to an incident last August when he fired shots in the parking lot of Newport Avenue Market.