PORTLAND, Ore. —The Oregon Department of Corrections said last night the governor has asked prison officials to collect information on early transitions out of prison for people who are medically vulnerable or whose sentences are nearly complete. The governor’s request for information is welcome news to many in the state who are relieved that she may be heeding the advice of public health experts who say reducing the prison population is a necessary step to protect public health during the pandemic.

The Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC) has reported 12 confirmed cases of COVID-19, which includes seven staff and five inmates. In an email to prison staffers last week, leaders at the DOC said they had “no doubt more positive tests for [prisoners] and employees are inevitable in the coming days and weeks.” 

Corrections staffers that come and go from the prison each day are at high risk for contracting and spreading the disease to their families and communities. The shortage of PPE statewide exacerbates this risk.

Vanessa Sherrod, a Salem mother and college student who transitioned out of Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in December after completing a lengthy sentence, said she feels lucky to be home with her kids and husband during the pandemic, but she worries for the women who are still incarcerated. Sherrod has been in contact with women inside the prison as well as their families who are waiting for them to return home to help care for children and aging parents during the pandemic.

“I’ve been trying to bring attention to what is going on for these women,” Sherrod said. “And I try to share information about how they can protect themselves from COVID-19, but it seems impossible in the prison. The women’s bunks are squeezed in together with over 100 people in each dorm. So now because of COVID-19 they sleep head to foot. That is about as much social distance as you can get in prison.”

Sherrod said she knows of several women whose release dates have already passed by or been postponed due to the cancelation of programs at the prison. Normally, the women can earn early release by completing the skills-building programs. Sherrod said she was saddened after talking to the 12-year-old daughter of one incarcerated woman whose release date was pushed out five months. 

“This child was devastated that her mother wouldn’t be home soon, and she wanted to make sure her mom got masks to stay protected,” Sherrod said. “When you think of all that our kids are already going through due to COVID-19, now imagine what it is like for kids whose parents are incarcerated. It is heartbreaking.”

Sherrod is an alumni of the Family Preservation Project, a program run by the YWCA of Portland. The program works with mothers who are incarcerated, their children, and their caregivers outside of prison to strengthen families and reduce trauma for children.

Sherrod said many family members are concerned about their loved ones inside the prison with existing medical conditions, many of whom already struggle to get the care they need in prison. “These families are asking, how are they going to protect my loved one? They want to know that their family members will be safe.”