Center on Sentencing and Corrections

Promising Practices

Closing Death Row Unit

Agency

Oregon Department of Corrections

Summary

To reduce restrictive housing use and increase operational efficiency, the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) decided to phase out its use of the death row unit in 2020. ODOC transferred the 27 incarcerated people on death row at the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) to special housing units or into the general population. The reform allows ODOC to decommission the old disciplinary segregation unit and repurpose the space formerly used for death row into a safer disciplinary segregation unit with upgraded utilities, technology, and less punitive conditions. 

Goal

This reform aims to phase out the practice of segregating people on death row based solely on their sentence and instead allow for individualized determinations of appropriate housing placements. The change reinforces the department’s commitment to improving living conditions for adults in their custody and housing people in the least restrictive setting possible for the safety of those who work and live in their facilities. Through this reform, the department can house adults in custody (AICs) with death sentences safely in lesser restrictive settings. 

Process

In 2019, Senate Bill 1013 narrowed the definition of aggravated murder and subsequently decreased the number of incarcerated people with a death sentence in Oregon. This legislation, along with an ongoing state moratorium on executions in place since 2011, has largely ended the practice of capital punishment in Oregon. This reality, coupled with a recommendation to eliminate death row by the Vera Institute of Justice in 2016 report, eventually led the ODOC leadership to phase out death row use. The reform centers the department’s choice to make individualized housing decisions that reflect behavioral changes rather than only a persons sentence.  

As of July 1, 2020, all housing assignments for incarcerated people who were on death row have been reassigned to suitable housing. 

Solution

With guidance from the Executive Team at the ODOC, the department phased out death row use by July 1, 2020. The 27 adults in custody at OSP previously housed on death row were transferred to special housing units or into the general population at OSP or another ODOC facility.  

This change allows ODOC to relocate the disciplinary segregation unit (DSU) to the repurposed space former death row unit at OSP. The relocated DSU will house incarcerated people who commit infractions—such as assaultsengage in extortion and gang activityand close the older disciplinary segregation building. Relocating the DSU will ensure a safer environment for those who live and work at OSP. The new space allows for increased sightlines for staff, upgraded technology, a fire suppression system, and temperature controls. Relocating segregation will also provide cost savings for the department and allow ODOC to consolidate medical and behavioral healthcare in one location. 

Results

Phasing out death row has resulted in less restrictive living conditions for its former residents. Additionally, repurposing death row into a new DSU unit is expected to save the department about $104,000 in the current biennium. 

This Promising Practices section of the SAS Resource Center was developed as part of a collaborative effort with the Vera Institute of Justice, University of Michigan Law School, and Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights. We are also deeply grateful to the many leaders across the country who created and implemented each of the reforms cited throughout this section for their efforts to reduce the use of restrictive housing in prisons and jails across the country.

Please note that Vera and our partners do not specifically endorse the practices and policies included in this section. The Promising Practices section features segregation reforms being implemented in prisons and jails around the country. Our goal is to serve as a resource to other jail and prison systems interested in implementing similar practices and policies by highlighting those jurisdictions that report successful reforms.