Local civil rights groups are asking Oregon Department of Corrections for increased transparency and an audit of disciplinary actions taken against inmates. They’re also demanding reforms to the way it transfers inmates between its facilities and answers to questions about the transfer of a specific inmate in August.
On Sept. 19, representatives from ACLU of Oregon, Voz Hispana Cambio Comunitario and Don’t Shoot Portland, as a part of the Black Lives Matter movement, met with state corrections director Colette Peters and several other DOC staff at Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.
They brought with them letters signed by roughly 100 Portland-area community members and local civil rights and religious leaders, asking for a revision of the state corrections department’s disciplinary and transfer policies and, specifically, how they are applied to African-American and Latino inmates.
“We have anecdotal reports from folks that are incarcerated that these policies are being applied disproportionately to certain communities of black and brown people,” said Mat dos Santos, ACLU of Oregon’s legal director.
Additionally, he said ACLU of Oregon has “concerns about the transparency of DOC’s disciplinary policies and the transparency about policies relating to transfers.”
When inmates are transferred to facilities far from their communities, it creates barriers to visitation.
According to research compiled by Prison Policy Initiative, just 31 percent of people in America’s state prisons receive a visit from a loved one in a typical month, though a “breadth of research” shows maintaining contact with family and receiving visitors are among the best ways to keep prisoners from reoffending after their release.
Francisco Lopez, political director of Voz Hispana Cambio Comunitario, said his organization also believes transfer policies and disciplinary actions disproportionately affect inmates of color based on phone calls his office receives from their families.
He echoed dos Santos’ concerns regarding DOC’s lack of transparency around DOC handling of inmates, saying it causes confusion and hardships for their loved ones on the outside, especially when an inmate is transferred to a prison far from where they live.
Lopez said he and the other activists asked Peters for an audit “of the department and an audit of issues that are arising there in terms of communities of color – especially African Americans and Latinos.”
They believe an audit would confirm their suspicions that these inmates are treated more harshly than white inmates, and they hope having that evidence would pave the way for reforms within DOC.
In their letter, the activists also requested increased services for African-American and Latino inmates and their families.
Voz Hispana and Don’t Shoot Portland also asked Peters for the return of Oregon State Penitentiary’s Latino Club president, inmate Rafael Mora-Contreras, whom they said was transferred to Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla earlier this year with no explanation given to his friends and family.
A DOC spokesperson told Street Roots she could not access any information regarding Mora-Contreras’ transfer.
Letters and documents provided to Street Roots by supporters of Mora-Contreras raise questions about correctional staff’s treatment of prisoners of different ethnicities within the walls of Oregon’s correctional institutions, but an analysis that would either back up or disprove these claims does not exist.
Lopez walked away from the meeting hopeful, saying the response from Peters was “very positive.”
Peters issued the following statement in an email response to Street Roots’ inquiry regarding her recent meeting with the activists in Salem: “It was a valuable meeting. I always appreciate it when the community brings issues and concerns forward, and I look forward to the collaboration between DOC, Voz Hispana Cambio Comunitario, and Don’t Shoot Portland.”
DOC spokesperson Betty Bernt said in the same email response that Peters and DOC have agreed to look into the issues brought forward in the letter; however, no decisions or actions have yet been decided. She wrote, “We will take all input into consideration as we move forward.”
In response to an inquiry about data on disciplinary policies, Bernt wrote, “We do not have any existing reports that speak to disciplinary policies being applied disproportionately to any ethnic group.”
The civil rights groups have not yet received a formal response from DOC in regard to their requests, but are scheduled to meet with DOC again on Oct. 25.
Mora-Contreras’ mother, Elpidia Mora, told Street Roots with the help of a translator that she has trouble communicating with DOC because she does not speak English. When her son was placed in solitary confinement for more than two months between April and June of this year, the effect on her family was devastating.
She became tearful as she recalled the first 15 days her son was in solitary confinement. She said she knew something was wrong because he stopped calling, but she had no idea what it was.
Her family eventually learned about his placement in segregation after another OSP inmate called on Mora-Contreras’ behalf.
Additionally, after Mora-Contreras’ transfer, family and friends said they were given the runaround when they tried to find out why he was moved to Eastern Oregon.
His close friend and owner of Revolución Coffee House in downtown Portland, Maria Garcia, visited OSP after his transfer, demanding answers that she said she never received.
Mora-Contreras spoke with Street Roots from Two Rivers Correctional Institution. He said he didn’t know why he’d been placed in segregation while he was still housed at OSP until after his lawyer submitted an inquiry.
He was under investigation and was kept in solitary confinement for 68 days before, as DOC documents obtained by Street Roots show, he was completely cleared of charges.
“It was horrible,” Mora-Contreras said of his long stay in segregation. “Imagine a room about 5 feet wide, 8 feet long, 10 feet high. The only building on the premises that’s air conditioned, it’s always cold – in the middle of summer. Lights go on at 5 in the morning; lights go off at 10. I was in the cell by myself. Your thoughts run wild. You don’t know what’s going on; you’re disoriented, suicidal thoughts will creep in once in a while, and you’re not really getting any answers from anybody. It’s a very lonely and cold place.”
He lost 20 pounds and the spark in his eye during that time, observed his mother and Garcia.
Before the investigation began in April, Mora-Contreras was reportedly a model inmate. He’d been president of the Latino Club for nine years, and staying out of trouble is a prerequisite for that job. He created his own niche at OSP, photographing inmate weddings and fundraisers and advocating for Hispanic inmates.
His parents and siblings all live in the Portland area, and it was easy for his father to drive his mother to Salem from their home in Hillsboro for frequent visits. But Mora-Contreras’ father has a titanium plate in his back that prevents him from being able to make the three-hour trip to Two Rivers without severe pain. He has not seen his son since he’s been transferred.
Mora-Contreras’ family hired an attorney when they discovered he was under investigation and in isolation.
In a letter sent to OSP Superintendent Jeff Premo, who recently retired, attorney Zachary Stern argued that his client had a record of clean conduct for more than a decade, had never been classified as a gang member, had earned a bed in the honors dorm and successfully ran the Latino Club.
Mora-Contreras was in segregation while corrections staff investigated reports that he was involved with numerous other prisoners in bringing drugs into OSP. His attorney called the investigation “loosely defined” and the allegations, which were ultimately dismissed, “baseless.”
“As you can tell from the enclosed documents,” he wrote, “the only items Mr. Mora-Contreras is involved in bringing into the institution are local professors and leaders of other non-profits to aid other inmates … the only ‘orchestration’ efforts Mr. Mora-Contreras chooses to engage in are fundraisers for charitable causes.”
During their visit to OSP in September, DOC director Peters told Mora-Contreras’ close friend, Garcia, that she would conduct an investigation into his case.
Mora-Contreras indicated in a letter to an attorney after his transfer that he believed prison staff was targeting him because he advocates for the rights of Hispanic inmates, who he said are ineligible for certain employment opportunities and programs within the prison system, an accusation DOC denies.
“If you go into a disciplinary segregation unit,” Mora-Contreras told Street Roots, “most of the population there is of minority – blacks, Hispanics.”
Mora-Contreras, 35, was sentenced to life without parole for hiring someone to kill a man engaged to his younger sister when he was 19 years old, and he had been at OSP since the trial ended when he was 22.
Now, he said, for all he knows, he could spend the rest of his life out at Two Rivers in Eastern Oregon. Out there, he said, opportunities are scarce, he’s far from family, and he’s surrounded by gang members.
“The jobs are limited out here,” he said. “You’re out in the middle of the desert, in a unit with 100 other people, isolated from everything else.”