Oregon DOC to eliminate death row; doesn’t change sentences

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 Voters have repeatedly implemented and repealed it from the state’s Constitution.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.

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.”

Clarkson also raised concerns about the safety of other inmates, noting that several people on death row have killed other inmates.

Prison officials defended the decision to move death row inmates to general population by saying there are other serious offenders in their custody who already live in those units.

Jann Carson, interim executive director of the ACLU of Oregon, in a statement applauded Oregon for closing what she called “costly and cruel death row” and moving to more human and effective practices that keep prisoners and staff safe.

“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,” Carson said.

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