Benton County Jail

An inmate sits in a minimum security cell at the Benton County Jail. 

The Northern Oregon Regional Corrections Facility in The Dalles has been in the news quite a lot lately, and the jail has received some attention from Benton County residents as well.

Most recently, the regional jail — a joint operation of Gilliam, Hood River, Wasco and Sherman counties — has been under fire for its dealings with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, with some arguing that those dealings amount to a violation of Oregon's sanctuary law. In particular, the jail has been criticized for its practice of honoring ICE detainers — formal requests that ask jails to hold inmates suspected of violating immigration laws until an immigration agent can book the inmate on federal charges, even if that person would have been released otherwise.

NORCOR recently announced that it would no longer honor those detainers. It's possible that the protests played a role in that decision, but the policy change came after NORCOR settled a lawsuit filed by a Hood River man who said he had been illegally detained for 20 hours while the jail waited for immigration agents to take him into federal custody.

Even though the jail will no longer honor ICE detainers, it will continue to house immigration detainees for the federal agency, which pays NORCOR $80 a night. So expect the statewide protests against NORCOR to continue.

Which brings us to the Benton County connection. As you might remember, Benton County entered into a contract last year with NORCOR to send some of the county's inmates to the jail in The Dalles. The contract allows Benton County to rent up to 40 beds from NORCOR at a time. The county needs to rent beds from other jails because the 40-bed Benton County Jail is woefully undersized and has been for years. Benton County taxpayers spend about $1 million a year renting space in other jails, and the big advantage to the county from the NORCOR deal is that it saves money.

The big advantage to those Benton County inmates who have elected to serve their sentences at NORCOR is that the facility offers inmates a variety of programming options — job training, perhaps, or GED or anger-management classes — that generally are not available to inmates at the Benton County Jail. That's because the Benton County Jail is woefully undersized, too small to accommodate those types of programs. Perhaps you start to see where we're going with this.

Officials here say ICE doesn't have access to any of Benton County's inmates at NORCOR; ICE inquiries about those inmates are to be referred to Benton County Sheriff Scott Jackson, who is bound by state and county policies regarding sanctuary status. We don't have any reason to doubt that.

But, crazy as this may sound, one way to be absolutely sure about this would be for Benton County to build a jail that meets the needs of its current criminal justice system, and not to be bound by a woefully undersized jail that has hobbled the county's criminal justice system for decades. After all, if we didn't have to send any of our inmates to other jails, we wouldn't need to worry about the policies and practices of those jails.

As it happens, Benton County is in the midst of a wide-ranging examination of its criminal justice system. Our hunch is that one of the conclusions of the study might be that — how to put a point on this? — the county's jail is woefully undersized. 

But that conclusion will just be the start. There will be lots of difficult questions ahead as we try to decide what shape our criminal justice system should take, and what sorts of facilities we need to serve that system. 

The attention and the activism surrounding NORCOR have been bracing to witness. Let's hope we can bring some of that passion back home to tackle the work that our own criminal justice system requires.

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