Around Oregon

Oregon’s new prison director views housing, jobs after release as essential

Mike Reese has been doing a lot of walking and listening as he takes over running Oregon’s prison system.

Since Nov. 13, he’s been in charge of 12,143 adults in custody, 3,835 employees and a billion-dollar budget.

Reese came out of retirement at the request of Gov. Tina Kotek to serve as director of the Oregon Department of Corrections.

He brings to the job a long resume in criminal justice. He served as chief of the Portland Police Bureau and then as Multnomah County sheriff, retiring from that job in 2022.

Reese was considering running for mayor of Portland when Kotek’s office called.

She persuaded him to give up his political ambition to immediately take on the prison job.

“I need you,” Kotek told him.

Reese agreed.

“I’ve spent my professional career doing everything I can to create safer communities,” Reese said in an interview. “I felt like I had more to offer.”

In his first days, he sat down with agency leaders and then started prison tours. He’s been to Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville and Santiam Correctional Institution and Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.

He’s talked to prison leaders and corrections officers, who remain in short supply across the agency. He found time to talk to those in custody.

Meeting them “has been really good for my learning experience,” Reese said.

“It’s sad to see folks who have severe mental health issues being incarcerated in our prisons.”

–Mike Reese, director, Oregon Department of Corrections

The prisons hold countless challenges.

According to Corrections Department reports, roughly 7 out of every 10 adults in the system have abused drugs or alcohol.

And about 1 out of 5, or 2,426, are classified as having severe mental health issues.

Reese wants to do something about both.

“It’s sad to see folks who have severe mental health issues being incarcerated in our prisons,” he said.

He noted the agency is short of professionals who can provide in-prison treatment.

Reese said he intends to work with Kotek and legislators “on alternatives to incarceration for people who are severely mentally ill.”

He also wants to see improved treatment for those with substance abuse issues.

Reese said prisons weren’t built to serve as mental health wards or as treatment centers.

And he was struck by one scene at the state penitentiary, eying a four-tier cell block.

“Looking at the bottom tier, every cell has a wheelchair or walker outside. We have an aging population in our institutions,” Reese said.

But he’s as concerned about what happens when adults are released.

“Housing matters,” Reese said. “We’ve got to have stable housing for every single person that leaves here. I know that’s a challenge.”

“If you’re turning people back to the streets of any city in Oregon, that’s not a stable environment for them,” Reese said.

Lack of a place to live makes it too easy for them to slip back into “bad habits” and “self-destructive” behavior.

He also wants to be sure they are ready to work.

“Employment matters,” he said.

One of his immediate priorities is addressing staff wellness.

“We have to take care of our staff, particularly those on the front line,” Reese said. “We have too many vacancies in our organization and that impacts wellness.”

The Corrections Department has struggled to hire, faced with a heated labor market where criminal justice agencies are competing for employees. Currently, the agency has 403 vacancies, including 210 corrections officers and 51 ranking officers from corporal to captain.

“We have to be a lot more innovative,” Reese said, to draw in recruits. “Our best recruiters are folks that already work here.”

He said the agency might start paying a bonus to employees who recruit an applicant and pay them another bonus if a recruited employee makes it through probation.

Reese said getting sentenced to state prison is the punishment for those convicted of crimes and they deserve to be treated humanely.

“Our job is to keep them safe, keep our community safe and provide them the resources they need to be successful when they leave custody,” Reese said. “Treating people with dignity and respect can be transformative.”

Mike Reese, new director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, meets agency employees during a tour of the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem in November. He is former sheriff of Multonmah County. (Stephanie Lane/Oregon State Penitentiary)

Contact Editor Les Zaitz: [email protected].

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