Oregon State Penitentiary Makes Significant Progress Toward Mental Health Treatment Goals


SALEM — The Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC), in partnership with Disability Rights Oregon (DRO), has made significant progress to provide the highest level of care for the people housed in the Behavioral Health Unit (BHU) located at the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP).

In January 2016, the DOC entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with DRO regarding the operation of the BHU. DOC committed to substantive changes to the operations and physical structure of the unit, which currently houses 40 adults in custody (AIC) with sometimes severe mental health issues. Over the last several years, DOC has significantly increased available treatment and outdoor recreational space, increased security and treatment staffing, and collaborated with experts on mental health treatment. These efforts have been made to create a more humanized environment because 95 percent of the AICs will release from DOC custody and return to Oregon’s communities.

DOC Director Colette S. Peters states, “Disability Rights Oregon and DOC agreed to solve this challenge together in the conference room and not the courtroom, and that is exactly what we have accomplished. Through our partnership and the incredible work of the employees at the Oregon State Penitentiary, we significantly improved the lives of the adults in custody and the wellness of the team who works in BHU; I couldn’t be more proud of them. Our agency has, and will continue, to strive to remain a national leader in these efforts.”

Employees at OSP have made considerable strides toward increasing structured out-of-cell time, including education classes, mental health treatment programs, and meetings with correctional counselors. In January of 2017, the average number of weekly structured out-of-cell time for the AICs was around two hours. At the beginning of March 2019, the average number increased to over 10 hours per week.

“The most recent data from the Department of Corrections paints a dramatically different picture of conditions at the OSP unit that houses people with severe mental illness than what we saw last year. DOC is now on track to meet the specific goals of the agreement that we reached with them three years ago. Additional work remains, but we are optimistic that the BHU can truly become a place where prisoners can receive treatment for their mental health while their intrinsic human worth is protected,” said Joel Greenberg, staff attorney for DRO. “When people with mental illness can leave prison and return to their communities healthy and ready to lead productive lives, we all live in a better world.”

OSP is a multi-custody prison located in Salem that houses over 2,000 adults in custody. OSP is surrounded by a 25-foot-high wall with 10 towers. The facility has multiple special housing units including death row, disciplinary segregation, behavioral health, intermediate care housing, and an infirmary (with hospice) with 24-hour nursing care. OSP participates in prison industries with Oregon Corrections Enterprises including the furniture factory, laundry, metal shop, and contact center. It provides a range of correctional programs and services including education, work-based education, work crews, and pre-release services. OSP was established in 1866 and, until 1959, was Oregon’s only prison.

About Author

Jennifer Black is a Communications Manager at the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC). The mission of the DOC is to hold offenders accountable for their actions and reduce the risk of future criminal behavior. The department has custody of adults sentenced to prison for more than 12 months, housing approximately 14,900 adults in 14 state prisons throughout the state.

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