PENDLETON, Ore. (KOIN) — A petition is asking Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to release with parole supervision some low public safety risk prisoners — particularly the elderly and medically at-risk — in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among inmates, staff and others impacted by Department of Corrections.
An emphasis is also placed on those whose release dates are within 2020.
“At this time, with COVID-19 threatening the health and lives of untold numbers of people under your control and care, a current prison sentence in Oregon could turn into a death sentence for many,” reads the Change.org petition, which has garnered over 7,500 signatures as of Thursday.
“We are very concerned. My husband and I wouldn’t be pushing for this if this hadn’t happened. But my husband is due to get out July 21st. He’s 69 years old. He is a brittle diabetic and he has had three stint placements,” Barbara Dickerson told KOIN 6 News.
Her husband, Terry Dickerson, is imprisoned at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton, Oregon for an April 2014 sex abuse charge, the only offense on his record, according to Department of Correction’s website. Barbara said she does not condone his past actions in any way.
Terry reported cold symptoms and a sore throat to his wife over the phone Wednesday and told her he wasn’t given a temperature check, she said.
Barbara said her husband has been held in the “honor unit” of the prison for good behavior. She said her husband told her they’ve moved 30 more inmates into the unit to make room at another part of the prison in case they start having COVID-19 patients.
Dickerson, a nurse who lives in Walla Walla, Washington, said her husband has reported crowded, unsanitary conditions and she’s had to fight for proper health checkups of her husband in the past.
“The way I feel about it, if he dies in prison with less than four months, there’s going to be a multi-million dollar lawsuit,” she said.
Dickerson is a supporter of the petition, along with another woman, Patty Youngblood. The two started a group over five years ago to fight for the rights of prisoners, called “Time Does Not Fit the Crime.” Neither was the original creator of the petition, which has gained over 8,000 supporters online.
Youngblood has a son also being held in the Pendleton prison, but he is considered young and healthy and his sentence still has some time to go, beyond 2020. She recognizes her son would not be eligible for the proposed release, but still thinks its important for it to take place in order to better exert social distancing in the prisons.
“They have to stay in their rooms, in their beds, which is only two feet from each other. There is no social distancing,” Youngblood said.
What the petition specifically calls for are as follows:
- The release of all medically fragile adults and adults over the age of 60 to parole supervision.
- Release all people who have an anticipated release date in 2020 to parole supervision.
- Expedition of the commutation process, including reviews for people already suitable for release.
- Suspension of unnecessary parole meetings.
- Lift all fees for calls to family members.
KOIN 6 News reached out to the office of Gov. Brown where a spokesperson acknowledged the Oregon constitution does specify the governor has “executive clemency power” or the ability to release prisoners.
In an emailed statement, Liz Merah said the state’s Department of Corrections has a number of procedures in place to prevent an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, but added that Brown “has also stated that all options are on the table to fight the spread of the coronavirus, as warranted by the situation at the time.”
Brown’s decision on new measures will also be based on public health advisers’ recommendations.
“Among other options, the Governor may consider use of her clemency powers, but has not made any decisions as of this point,” Merah said, noting that it’s Brown’s “top priority” to ensure the safety and health of all Oregonians, including those in correctional institutions.
The “safe and secure operations” of prison facilities was also listed as a top priority, according to Department of Corrections Communications Manager Jennifer Black.
She noted several social distancing measures that have been implemented at all of Oregon’s 14 prisons, including being closed to visitors and contract employees; limiting the number of inmates in common areas; measuring out seating in the chapels; adding blue tape every six feet for standing in lines; and eliminating group yard activities.
There are 14,500 adults in DOC custody throughout Oregon and 4,500 prison system employees, according to the department.