A Benton County man named Eric sat in a semicircle of his peers in a classroom last month and discussed the triggers that lead to relapse during addiction.

“Being in here makes me feel like I’m never going to get high again,” said Eric, who was wearing forest green jail scrubs. “I’ve noticed changes in the way I view problems.”

Eric is an inmate at the Northern Oregon Regional Corrections Facility. In July, Benton County started renting space in the jail, which is located off Interstate 84 in The Dalles, about three hours northeast of Corvallis.

“I’m actually glad I’m locked up here,” said Eric, who had previously been in the Benton County Jail. (Eric is the man’s real first name; each of the inmates interviewed for this story said they did not want to use their last names.)

Eric was one of about 40 Benton County inmates being held at NORCOR that day. Those who spoke with a Gazette-Times reporter said they prefer being in The Dalles over the local jail because of the programs offered to them, like the substance abuse class Eric was attending, which was being led by a licensed mental health clinician.

“They don’t offer anything like this (in Benton County),” an inmate named Matthew said.

Matthew said he has bipolar disorder and the isolating conditions in the local jail make his anxiety worse.

“Being here, it doesn’t feel like a punishment for being mentally ill,” Matthew said.

Change took time

NORCOR hasn’t always offered treatment to the inmates housed there. Jail Administrator Bryan Brandenburg, who came to the facility in 2015, said implementing the substance abuse class and other programs at NORCOR took a culture change.

Brandenburg has a master’s degree in clinical psychology and is a licensed professional counselor. He worked for the Alaska Department of Corrections for 25 years, the last four as director of institutions. When Brandenburg started at NORCOR, the facility offered Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings (which they still hold), but had no other programming, he said.

“It’s still a jail but we’ve turned it into an evidence-based, best practices facility that emphasizes the importance of programming and making different choices so you don’t have to come back to jail, which enhances public safety and which improves people’s lives,” Brandenburg said.

He created and instituted the programs he now uses at NORCOR while working in Alaska. Among the Alaskan inmates who completed the treatment, the recidivism rate declined by 15 percent, Brandenburg said.

According to data from NORCOR on repeat offenders, the jail’s recidivism rate in 2013 was 76 percent. Its current recidivism rate is 66 percent. (Benton County Jail Commander Diana Rabago said she does not have recidivism rates for the local jail.)

Funded by a construction bond, NORCOR opened in 1999 as a partnership between Hood, Wasco, Sherman and Gilham counties. Those counties share the bulk of the expenses for the 212-bed facility, which rents remaining space to contracting counties. The facility houses pretrial and sentenced inmates.

Brandenburg said the average length of stay for inmates at NORCOR is 13 days. Of the 3,000 inmates who are booked and released annually, 83 percent are released within 30 days, he said. But that still leaves about 500 inmates a year who are staying in the jail for longer than a month and Brandenburg wants to use that time wisely.

“Who do you want to send back to the community?” he said. “You want to do everything you can while they’re incarcerated to help prepare them the best that we can to have a smooth transition and to not repeat the mistakes of the past, to give them some tools that they may not have had when they got here to make better decisions.”

Attitude classes

Beyond substance abuse treatment, the jail offers a criminal attitudes program that addresses cognitive behavior, an anger management class to teach self-regulation and separate parenting classes for mothers and fathers.

Each inmate that is booked into the facility participates in various screenings to determine risk level, Brandenburg said. Inmates who place at medium and high risk and who plan to be in the facility at least 30 days are invited to participate in the programming.

Brandenburg said all the classes are voluntary. Sometimes inmates will choose to have their court hearings postponed to create enough time to complete 30-day programming, he said. The inmates take pre-tests for each of the classes to identify treatment needs.

The classes run Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. with a break for lunch, said lead mental health clinician Kathleen Green. The inmates are asked to complete homework, such as anger logs in which they keep track of situations when they became frustrated so they can start to understand the underlying reasons for why they get upset, she said.

At the end of the 30 days, the inmates complete post-tests that the providers compare to their pre-tests to determine whether the intervention actually changed their thinking, Brandenburg said. He also pays attention to whether the inmates return to jail.

Since July, seven Benton County inmates have completed the 30-day programming, Brandenburg said.

Release counseling

Outside of the treatment classes, every inmate is invited to do release preparation, which consists of planning for employment, community treatment, probation management, housing, transportation, family reunification and more, Brandenburg said.

A Benton County public health official visits the jail about once a month to speak directly with inmates about local resources, he said. Brandenburg also invites probation officers and providers to visit the jail to meet with inmates or coordinates phone conversations with those people so inmates are prepared to be released back into the community.

“It’s much better if they can come in and meet but that’s not always possible because it’s three hours away,” he said. “So if we can set up a telephone interview, it helps them keep that appointment when they get out.”

NORCOR inmates who are determined to be chronically mentally ill are housed together in one unit. These inmates take part in their own programming, as well as integrate with the other inmates for some classes.

“This place is just … it’s very therapeutic,” said Michael, a Benton County inmate who lives in the mental health unit.

The inmates gather each morning in the unit’s common room for a mandatory meeting led by a mental health clinician, Green said. They discuss what they’re feeling, what their goals are and who can help them in attaining those goals. They also discuss current events in the news, such as the recent hurricanes, to help them feel less isolated from the greater community.

The members of the unit are invited to participate in a medication management and overall wellness group, as well as a dual diagnosis substance abuse class.

“We’re still holding people accountable for what their charges are but also recognizing that we have a population that has needs, a population that are severely and persistently mentally ill,” Green said. “We’re just trying to provide services for them with the ultimate goal of public safety and lowering recidivism.”

An inmate in the mental health unit named Larry said he asked his attorney to have him sent from Benton County Jail to NORCOR.

“Benton County for me is 23-hour lockdown,” he said. “You’re literally isolated. There’s no treatment available. This is so much better.”

Michael, an inmate who also lives in the unit, said it’s not hard to be away from Benton County.

“We get video visits with our families,” he said. “It’s not all that different than seeing your family through a pane of glass.”

Jail facilities

The mental health unit, like the other dorms in the facility, has two tablets with access to games, educational material and purchase of commissary. The inmates can use the tablets in the common room to video chat with their families. Each inmate has one hour of free video visitation per week.

Each dorm in the jail also has a television, microwave and phone, as well as tables with painted-on checker, backgammon and solitaire boards. There are decks of cards and stacks of books lying around each unit, where the men and women sleep on bunk beds.

All of the inmates live in open doom units except those who have been placed in disciplinary segregation or are on suicide watch. The units take turns visiting the two recreation areas, which have a pull-up bar, dip bar and step-up block, as well as a 14 feet by 30 feet outside concrete area with a basketball hoop. A yoga teacher also visits the jail twice a week to lead classes.

Each inmate may request to work in the jail, by doing laundry, cooking or doing facility maintenance, and can use their earnings to buy commissary or purchase more minutes for video chatting.

Brandenburg said he tries to learn each inmate’s name and treat each one as a person rather than a number or a crime.

“Certainly they’ve done things that are wrong and they’re being adjudicated for that but it’s not my job to determine what you did or didn’t do,” he said. “My job is to hold you and that needs to be done in the most humane way possible, which includes that I talk to you respectfully.”

“I learned a long time ago that it was probably a good idea for me not to read reports on what people did in order for me to have an unbiased view of treating them,” he added.

He said when his deputies treat the inmates well it promotes mutual respect, and very few inmates act out as a result. He said there have been no assaults on staff or serious inmate assaults since he began working at NORCOR.

“I attribute all of that to how my staff interacts with these inmates,” Brandenburg said.

Defense attorneys

Corvallis defense attorney John Rich said all sentenced inmates from Benton County should be housed at NORCOR.

“They do have better programs for clients that have been sentenced and are no longer presumed to be innocent,” Rich said. “These programs are exactly what we want for clients that are having to spend time in jail due to a conviction for a crime.”

But, Rich believes it is a violation of Oregon law to put pretrial inmates in NORCOR. He cites a statute that says inmates must be housed in the county in which they’re being charged or in an adjoining county. Rich has sued Benton County for housing one of his clients in The Dalles and a judge ordered the Sheriff’s Office to house that inmate in Benton County pending trial.

Rich said one of his clients recently asked him to sue the county for transporting him to NORCOR prior to having a meeting with his attorney.

“He was there for two weeks without being able to effectively communicate with his attorney,” Rich said.

He said he has had one client request to be taken to NORCOR but that he told the client he needed him here to resolve his case, which was then settled within two weeks.

Rich said pretrial clients, especially those charged with felonies, need regular contact with their attorneys in order to go over police reports and audio and video recordings. He said he needs his clients to review these pieces of information and offer input, something that can only happen at an in-person meeting.

He has never met many of his clients prior to their incarceration and it takes time to develop the rapport and the trust necessary to effectively represent them, Rich said. He said he has had a very difficult time communicating with his clients at NORCOR. He said clients are not able to call without a paid calling card (Brandenburg says inmates are permitted to call their attorneys for free) and that phones cut out when they do get through. Rich also has concerns about privacy and the recording of calls.

Not enough room

The problem at the Benton County Jail is a lack of space. The facility was built in 1976 as an add-on to the courthouse. It was intended to be a temporary facility until the completion of a proposed regional jail similar to NORCOR, but that facility was never built.

Voters have since routinely rejected bond measures to build a new jail in Benton County. Instead, voters have supported levies to cover the expense of renting up to 40 jail beds in neighboring counties, which the county did for many years and which cost about $1.1 million a year. The move to NORCOR is saving the county about $500,000 a year, Sheriff Scott Jackson has said.

“I think Benton County is in a tough spot because they book and release as many people as we do here and they have a 40-bed facility,” Brandenburg said.

He said Benton County could offer the same programming NORCOR offers if it had the support and funding necessary.

“To be able to try to provide just basic care is a struggle, let alone to do what we’re doing here at NORCOR,” Brandenburg said. “At most jails that’s the case because of funding restrictions and limits on resources and willingness of people to go down that path.”

Rabago said the primary reason the Benton County Jail can’t offer treatment classes is because of the space restrictions. The facility has only one dayroom, which the low, medium and high security inmates take turns using for recreation time. They can watch TV, use the phone and have access to books. The room is also used for Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous classes, as well as religious services.

“We don’t really have anywhere to actually facilitate a program,” she said.

Also, because the Benton County Jail contracts with other facilities to house inmates, they’re not typically in the local jail long enough to complete a treatment program, Rabago said.

She said she’s received comments from inmates who said they appreciated the opportunity to complete the classes at NORCOR.

“I think any efforts you can do for an inmate like that can only be positive,” Rabago said. “I think we’re doing a disservice to our community with our jail when it comes to that. We’re not giving them the tools they need to use when they get out of here, unless they go to NORCOR.”

Lillian Schrock covers public safety for the Gazette-Times. She may be reached at 541-758-9548 or lillian.schrock@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter at @LillieSchrock. 

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