December 13, 2020

On Tuesday, Nov. 24, officials from the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office shared details about their corrections work programs with the Board of Commissioners. The presentation was the final of four informational briefings tied to ongoing public safety reform efforts in Multnomah County. 

The briefing, originally requested by Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, follows unanimous approval of budget revisions in June to re-envision the criminal legal system. 

That re-envisioning — accelerated by the protests for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s police killing — aims to shift funds from the punitive portions of the traditional criminal justice system, while reinvesting in upstream prevention, diversion and reentry programs focused on the Black and other communities of color.

“Our conversation has appropriately focused most visibly on issues of policing, use of force transparency, investment and reinvestment; but it should also encompass all parts of public safety, including prosecution, the courts, community justice and corrections,” Commissioner Jayapal said. “It was with this in mind that we requested this briefing on jail labor."

She went on to ground the contemporary use of jail labor in its historical context.

“We must recognize forced labor’s roots in slavery and recognize that uncompensated or under-compensated labor is allowed today only because of an exception to the 13th Amendment, which bans slavery and involuntary servitude ‘except for punishment for crime where the party shall have been duly convicted,’” Jayapal said. 

“I don’t mean in any way to suggest that practices in Multnomah County jails are the same as historic practices — they’re obviously not. But a policy conversation about the use and structure of jail work programs must recognize those roots.”

Overview of adult labor program

Sheriff Mike Reese provided an overview of the adult corrections work programs alongside Corrections Facilities Chief Deputy Steve Alexander and Program Manager Stephanie LaCarrubba.

Photo inside Multnomah County Inverness Jail in Northeast Portland

The Oregon Constitution sets guidelines for inmate work and any time-served credits a person may receive, Reese explained, while Multnomah County ordinances define limits on wages, eligibility and work requirements. 

By participating in corrections work programs, those who are serving sentences:

  • Receive up to 10 days off of every 30 days they are serving, in addition to other time credits authorized by the Courts and; 

  • Earn a dollar a day for each day worked. 

Multnomah County is one of the only jurisdictions to provide credit for time served in work programs and also to provide workers’ compensation coverage, said Reese. 

But Sheriff’s Office officials said the programs add value beyond monetary compensation.

“Adults in custody also have the opportunity to develop work habits, expand work skills and abilities, and develop life skills while giving back to the community,” said Reese. 

“For some, a connection to community or others has been disrupted in the past or they may have struggled to find or maintain purpose,” said Alexander.

Work programs offer opportunities to build a professional relationship with others both in a supervisory structure and as co-workers, he said. Creating and maintaining a routine also builds up a sense of responsibility, he noted: “The end result of accomplishment, even in a general daily task, becomes empowering.” 

The Sheriff’s Office manages two types of work programs: internal services at their facilities and external contract work. And there are two types of assignments: convicted, sentenced assignments and voluntary, unsentenced assignments.  

Unsentenced people can choose to participate in internal assignments. 

When entering a corrections work program, people are assessed based on criminal history and behavior in custody, Alexander said. Screening is based on someone’s classification, and by counseling staff as well as the work group sergeant. Work opportunities can cover a variety of tasks, from neighborhood cleaning or maintaining parks, to working in housing units, laundry or in the kitchen, where participants can potentially earn an Oregon food handler’s certification. 

Internal services provided through the work program help offset costs that would otherwise come from County general funds, Reese said.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced changes to the program, officials also noted. Numerous adjustments have been made to protect people, including the suspension of outside work crew assignments. Internal work assignments have also shifted.   

Click here to view the presentation. 

What’s Next 

Since 2019, the Sheriff’s Office has been a part of ongoing realignment efforts to work with local agencies on restorative justice. 

LaCarrubba said the office’s programs unit aims to provide opportunities for successful reentry from jail to the community — with an emphasis on restorative justice.  

“The principle of restorative justice has long been a cornerstone of corrections,” LaCarrubba said. “The idea that an individual can work to repair the harm caused by their crime is not new. But the ways in which we support it has changed over the years. We must look at the bigger picture and look at root causes in order to work toward justice for the victim, community and offender.”

Adults in custody are given access to corrections counselors and chaplains.

“Our chaplains work one-on-one and with groups,” said LaCarrubba.

Counselors help provide recovery support for substance use disorders, cognitive behavioral therapy, and individuals in custody who may be victims of domestic violence. 

“Our teams also assist interested individuals in utilizing time in jail to assist with life skills and work towards setting personal goals,” she said. 

Since the start of the pandemic, programs have changed or been delayed to help keep people safe. But there remains a push to provide reentry support, including establishing a Pathways to Employment program, said LaCarrubba. 

The voluntary program aims to create individualized plans as inmates exit incarceration, including parenting skills, life skills and relapse prevention, said LaCarrubba.

Commissioners thanked the Sheriff and his team for the presentation. 

“I hear and see the benefits of work during incarceration, whether it's a feeling of self-worth, skill building or emotional support,” said Commissioner Jayapal. 

“To me the question isn’t so much whether folks should be given the chance to work, but rather the question of compensation. And making sure we’re understanding how these work programs connect to the reasons for incarceration and the policies behind it. Is it about punishment? Is it about rehabilitation? 

“We know that incarceration contributes to a cycle of poverty and that’s one of the reasons folks have a difficult time re-entering, so the question of compensation is connected to that. This is a good start, but there is a lot more to explore.”

Commissioner Jayapal requested additional budget information on money saved and revenue earned through the program. 

“This is scratching the surface of some really important values and philosophy into how we manage the criminal justice system and the change that our community is crying out for,” said Chair Deborah Kafoury. 

“We need to be strategic, we need to move quickly, and we need to do things that will make an impact on the lives of our Black, Indigenous, and other community members of color.”