A program to lower the number of inmates returning to the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facilities in The Dalles appears to be working, based on early results, says administrator Bryan Brandenburg.
The rate of inmates being re-arrested for other crimes had dropped by 11 percentage points in a one-year period, from 75 percent in fiscal year 2015-16 to 64 percent in 2016-17.
Even better news are the most recent figures, Brandenburg said, since the start of 2017, 260 inmates have qualified for one or more of nine classes to help them restructure their lives to become contributing members of society.
Out of 86 inmates who completed their classes, only 30 have returned to jail for another criminal offense.
Since the highest rate of return is within 30 days of an offender being released, Brandenburg said the new statistic is “extremely significant.”
“I want people to know that, from a public safety standpoint, the program is proving effective,” he said.
He said the new program is geared for inmates staying more than 30 days because that is the amount of time needed to complete a class.
Last year, 3,092 people were lodged at NORCOR and 2,000 released within 70 days.
Five hundred were incarcerated for less than 30 days and that same number was behind bars for seven days or less.
Brandenburg said each person who arrives at NORCOR is now assessed for risk factors and steered toward help in their area of need.
“Enhanced screening and assessment identifies characteristics that need to be addressed by treatment and helps us predict whether that individual is going to be at low, medium or high risk to re-offend,” he said.
The nine available classes range from substance abuse treatment to parenting to anger management, changing criminal attitudes and transitioning to the “real world” with a prepared resume, transportation and transitional housing.
Brandenburg said early results show that most of the inmates who returned to jail failed to complete their classes.
Another aspect of the new program is arranging for people with mental illness to get the help they need. Toward that end, the jail has partnered with Mid-Columbia Center for Living to spend federal grant dollars to boost the hours of a counselor from half-time to full-time.
Brandenburg said inmates can now get more immediate help to arrange for medication and psychiatric services to stabilize their conditions.
After working in the mental health unit at a prison in Alaska, Brandenburg fully understands that inmates with serious disorders — bipolar or schizophrenia — need treatment to regain rational thought processes.
“Getting people treated for mental disorders is a vital need in the inmate population,” he said.
As a result of having a counselor on deck, Brandenburg said the number of offenders with mental health issues was reduced in 2016 from 45 at the start of the year to 19 at the end.
“It’s some good stuff happening here,” said Brandenburg.
The risk assessment is performed through a series of specialized questions, which also tells jail personnel whether an incoming inmate is a potential rape victim, or perpetrator.
That helps staff determine the level of custody and safe placements, said Brandenburg.
He said the intake evaluation also can tell if the person is potentially suicidal.
Brandenburg credits the 59 corrections deputies and administrative staffers on the adult side of the jail, and 15 employees working with juveniles, for helping more inmates change their lives.
“The staff here has been outstanding in how they interact and deal with the offender population,” he said.
He credits the proactive tactics of the staff for the fact there have been no assaults on deputies in the last two years. He believes issues are getting taken care of before the frustration of inmates rise that high.
“We have had no suicides and no lawsuits,” he said.
When there have been attempted suicides, he said deputies have intervened to save lives.
“I am just very impressed with the quality of the deputies I have here,” said Brandenburg, who was hired to oversee NORCOR operations after the retirement of James Weed about 19 months ago.
He likes the set-up of a regional jail where he reports directly to the board, which is comprised of sheriffs and elected representatives from the four counties that fund NORCOR.
“This is a facility that uses evidence-based and best practices,” he said.
One of the ideas that Brandenburg has brought to the board is renting out bed space to female prisoners who are rated at minimum to medium-custody levels.
He said with some renovation, there would be room at NORCOR for up to 75 prisoners, which would provide revenue and help Oregon relieve overcrowding at Coffee Creek, the state’s one prison for women.
Brandenburg said the jail can now house up to 130 adult inmates, which is space needed by the host counties and federal authorities. However, he said the complex could be reconfigured to provide bed space to female prisoners.
“We would need to hire more staff and do more coordination to make it work but it is an option,” he said.
Coffee Creek was built to hold 1,280 inmates, but its population has reached 1,305.
The Oregon Department of Corrections did not gain traction on a proposal to spend millions reopening the female side of the state penitentiary in Salem to house the small number of overflow inmates, and the agency has since expressed interest in partnering with counties to provide housing.
Brandenburg would like to see NORCOR given consideration.
He is hopeful of being given the opportunity to negotiate terms with DOC in the near future.
“We want to be sure we can accommodate prisoners without creating adverse conditions for our staff,” he said.