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Oregon Dept. of Corrections to eliminate death row

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon Department of Corrections officials said Friday the agency will eliminate the state’s death row area of incarceration.

Death row inmates live largely together in a unit at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.

Prisons officials said in a statement that the elimination of the space that houses death row does not mean inmates’ death sentences will change.

Eliminating death row reflects the department’s decision to begin making individualized housing decisions regarding people sentenced to death, and a decrease in the numbers of those people, officials said.

In the last 50 years, Oregon has executed two death row inmates. Voters have repeatedly implemented and repealed it from the state’s Constitution.

In 2011, then-Gov. John Kitzhaber implemented an execution moratorium, which Gov. Kate Brown has continued.

Currently, 29 people in Oregon are sentenced to die. Of those, 27 inmates live together in a unit at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. They will be moved to general populations and other housing units in the state’s six maximum security prisons.

Among inmates on death row: Randy Lee Guzek, one of two men convicted in the brutal 1987 killings of Rod and Lois Houser in Terrebonne. He appealed the death sentence several times on various issues, leading to four costly retrials that came to the same conclusion.

Two other inmates convicted of capital crimes already live in other prisons, including Angela McAnulty, the only woman in Oregon with a death sentence.

Last year, Oregon lawmakers passed a bill narrowing the definition of aggravated murder, the only charge under state law that carries capital punishment. The change means fewer people are receiving a death sentence.

The building that currently houses death row inmates will become a disciplinary segregation unit that is safer and provides needed cost savings for the agency, officials said.

In 2016 the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reforms, recommended Oregon DOC shutter its death row and incorporate those inmates into other prison populations.

The report noted that inmates on death row face similar restrictions and lifestyles to those in the general population.

The agency notified victims Friday morning.

The Oregon District Attorneys Association said dissolving death row raises significant concerns, though they acknowledged they didn’t know the full details.

“Keeping them (inmates) in permanent isolation from society is but a small consequence in comparison to what they have done,” said Paige Clarkson, Marion County district attorney and association president. “And yet it still serves as one form of appropriate punishment for their crimes and keeps our neighborhoods safe, even if execution was never a real possibility in this state under recent governors.”

Statement provided to NewsChannel 21 by Oregon Department of Corrections Communications Manager Jennifer Black:

The Department of Corrections (DOC) is making changes regarding the department’s death row housing unit at the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP). Please know, these modifications will not change an adult in custody’s (AICs) sentence, only their housing assignment. OSP plans to phase out its use of death row over the coming months and reassign all AICs currently housed on death row to other special housing units or general population housing units at OSP or one of our other institutions. At this point, no housing assignments have been determined.

Eliminating death row will also allow the department to repurpose the space currently being occupied by the row for use as a new Disciplinary Segregation Unit (DSU) at the Penitentiary. The change in location for the DSU will ensure a safer environment for both DOC employees and AICs because it will afford increased line of sight by correctional employees. It has upgraded technology, and temperature controls – which is unlike the old location. With the decommissioning of the old DSU building, OSP can consolidate services, such as medical and behavioral health services, in one location. There will be cost savings in deferred maintenance and utilities, as we will be operating one building rather than two.

DOC leadership has been considering these changes for years and in October 2016, the Vera Institute of Justice made the recommendation to eliminate Oregon’s death row in their report, “Safe Alternatives to Segregation Initiative.” Eliminating death row reflects the department’s decision to begin making individualized housing decisions regarding AICs with a sentence of death, and a decrease in the number of AICs with death sentences. 

ACLU news release:

ACLU Applauds Closing of Death Row in Oregon

SALEM, Ore.– The Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC) announced that the state will close its death row at the Oregon State Penitentiary, where more than two dozen inmates are held in solitary confinement.

While this move neither bars the death penalty in Oregon nor commutes the sentences of those condemned to death, it represents a positive shift away from the use of capital punishment, which we believe is unconstitutional. 

Jann Carson, interim executive director of the ACLU of Oregon, issued the following statement:

“We applaud Oregon for closing our costly and cruel death row and moving to more humane and effective practices that keep prisoners and staff safe. Death row in Oregon is long-term solitary confinement that does not promote rehabilitation or accountability, nor does it make prisons safer.”

“Oregonians recognize that the death penalty is racist, arbitrary, error-prone, and is applied in an unfair and unjust manner against people, largely dependent on how much money they have, the skill of their attorneys, and the race of the victim. Capital punishment has no place in our justice system and must end. Governor Brown should take the next step to move Oregon forward by commuting the row.”  

Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, issued the following statement:

“We commend this move by Governor Brown, which aligns Oregon with states that are leading in the effort to build more just and fair criminal legal systems. Long-term solitary confinement is torture and inhumane. All across the country, we are seeing states and people turn away from the death penalty. Since 1976, more than 165 people have been exonerated from death row for crimes they did not commit — the death penalty makes the mistakes and racism of the justice system permanent. There is just no excuse for these punishments in any country we would aspire to be.”

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