NORCOR makes a difference for the inmates and communities of Benton County
“Yes, it’s a jail. But it’s an evidence-based and treatment-focused facility too. We are trying to make a difference in inmates’ lives and the communities where they return,” said Brian Brandenburg, Jail Administrator for the North Oregon Regional Correctional Facility (NORCOR).
Brian Brandenburg came to NORCOR two years ago, previously serving as the State of Alaska’s Department of Corrections Director of Institutions. He began his career as a mental health practitioner and prioritizes mental health treatment in his management and administration philosophy. When he arrived at NORCOR, the recidivism rate at the NORCOR facility was 75%. Since the implementation of his management philosophy—which includes the employment of two full-time mental health practitioners—and inmate programming, the recidivism rate has dropped to 63.9%.
Benton County rents 40 beds at NORCOR to supplement the 40 beds available in the county’s local jail. In the early 2000s, the county began renting an additional 40 jail beds in nearby facilities to house inmates when the Benton County Jail has no empty beds.
Most recently, in 2017, Benton County chose not to renew its jail bed rental contracts with previous counties and decided to negotiate a new contract for 40 beds with the North Oregon Regional Correctional Facility (NORCOR).
Sheriff Scott Jackson negotiated a daily rate with NORCOR that is nearly 50% lower than previous jail bed rental contracts, saving in excess of $500,000 annually that can be reallocated to other law enforcement responsibilities. Perhaps as important as the financial aspect, the NORCOR facility provides several other aspects that make the facility a philosophical fit for the county’s elected officials.
Recently new to Oregon and Benton County, Joe Kerby, Benton County Administrator, took it upon himself to visit the NORCOR facility with Benton County Sheriff Scott Jackson.
“It is one thing to talk in concept about inmate programming and recidivism rates. That has a certain impact on you. But to actually have the opportunity to speak with inmates from Benton County—it was one of the most powerful experiences in my 30-plus year career,” said Joe Kerby, Benton County Administrator.
Kerby and Sheriff Jackson had the opportunity to speak with six inmates from Benton County—two were part of a group of inmates that were located in a living section specific to inmates experiencing mental health issues and four were inmates that were currently in a substance abuse class.
During Kerby and Sheriff Jackson’s visit, every inmate from Benton County expressed thanks for being incarcerated at NORCOR instead of the Benton County jail. The two inmates located in the living section based on mental health needs provided stark comparisons between the two jail facilities.
One of the inmates experiencing a significant social anxiety disorder (the inmate was visibly rocking back and forth and initially very hesitant to speak) said that when he is housed at Benton County, he is housed in a cold, dark cell and there is nothing to do but sleep or get stuck thinking inside of his head. He has been at NORCOR since August and said he feels safer being there. He values the daily meeting that gets him out of his sleeping space, talking and interacting with other inmates, and being part of a therapeutic environment.
The other inmate expressed similar experiences. He said that the only time he was let out of his cell for recreation in the Benton County jail was between 11pm and 2am. He couldn’t even read in his cell because it was too dark to see and the jail had a “poor library.” He added that the NORCOR facility makes it easy to contact his lawyer or see a doctor.
Benton County has received criticism that the county’s rental of jail beds in The Dalles (150 miles away from Benton County) makes it difficult for inmates to contact their attorneys and establish a relationship. Both of the inmates Kerby spoke with in the mental health section said that their lawyers advocated for them to be held at NORCOR. NORCOR provides inmates 24/7, free access to a telephone to call their attorneys. One computer tablet per living section is provided for phone calls, plus inmates can utilize video chat capability when the tablet is docked (the docking station is located in the primary living area, not sleeping spaces).
The inmate that said he could call his attorney at any time during the day while he is at NORCOR said the only barrier he has in communicating with his attorney is the attorney’s schedule. In Benton County jail he has to wait to “flag down a guard” and ask to make a call. He also indicated that communicating using the tablet was “no different” from communicating through a window of glass.
NORCOR implements a work crew program where inmates can perform laundry, work in the kitchen or perform facility maintenance. The facility also provides group classes for inmates.
The programming available includes anger management, job readiness, critical thinking and criminal attitudes, parenting skills and substance abuse. All programming is available to inmates staying in the facility for at least 30 days. Brandenburg, NORCOR Administrator, says the 30-day requirement is necessary to establish a cohort in the programs and a reasonable timeframe for personal growth and demonstrated changes in thinking and behavior.
Since July 2017, seven inmates from Benton County have completed the 30-day program.
Benton County inmates participating in the substance abuse class while Kerby and Sheriff Jackson visited said things like, “Classes are awesome,” “Classes help change your mindset,” “Classes help change your thought process and how I view problems and situations.”
The overwhelming majority of the inmates participating in the substance abuse class said that their favorite class is Men’s Parenting because it “breaks down walls,” the class environment is “open and understanding,” and raises their awareness of the likelihood of intergenerational incarceration rates.
Inmates have a lot of needs that are not met by the Benton County facility. The ability to implement a contract with the North Oregon Regional Correctional facility that saves money and most importantly makes a difference in the lives of inmates and the communities where they released is a top priority for Benton County Sheriff’s Office and the Board of Commissioners.
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