It could be a university campus. Quaint white houses sit here and there; groundskeepers are pushing wheelbarrows and tending to the flower beds. Colorful picnic tables, some checkered in elementary school pastels, dot the grounds.
But the daunting cement wall and the guard towers with spotlights remind me this is no school. This is prison.
The Oregon State Penitentiary compound sprawls north of State Street, holding 2073 inmates within the 22 acres of its perimeter walls, the only maximum security prison in Oregon. Originally, the facility was designed to hold 1200 inmates, but it has grown somewhat with the population.
On a drizzly morning, four of us students and our instructor, all female, arrive for a tour.
In the foyer, Correctional Officer L. Coolbaugh, a jovial 15-year veteran of the penitentiary and our tour guide for the day, opens a locker for us to leave our phones and keys in and gives us instructions.
There are inherent safety risks, we’re told. Don’t talk to the inmates. Don’t take your key lanyard in – it could be used to strangle you, Coolbaugh jokes morbidly.
“If you want to run away, now’s the time,” Coolbaugh says coolly.
We pass through the metal detector, have our identities double-checked and receive our bright pink passes at the master control room; through more locked and barred doors, down more bare halls. To the left, a dimly-lit teal stairway leads to the Mental Health Infirmary, where inmates who don’t get along with others or harm themselves reside.
“We don’t want to go up there,” Coolbaugh says. “It doesn’t smell good.”
Instead, we enter A Block, one of the general population cell blocks, which Coolbaugh says is “set up almost like a dormitory.” But it’s a dorm on steroids, where “some of the guys have been living together for 20 years” in an 8 x 10 foot cement cell.
The room stretches five stories high, is capable of holding 560 prisoners. The bars to each cell are painted pastel yellow, green or blue.
Inmates, wearing light blue denim shirts and jeans with the Department of Corrections logo emblazoned in gold on their backs, mill around like students walking to class.
A few banter with Coolbaugh.
“You need help with the tours today?” one guy asks as he walks by. “I can do the pat downs.”
“Not today,” Coolbaugh says.
The prison is surprisingly, surreally laid back. Despite the snide remarks and intermittent catcalls, despite knowing there are only four, unarmed officers on duty in the cell block, I feel strangely safe.
But it’s not safe, especially not for the prisoners who live here.
Coolbaugh tells us stories. There was the incident in the activities room six years ago, when two inmates killed another in a sound–proof music room. They left his body with more than 37 stab wounds.
“Most things in prison are related to drugs,” Coolbaugh says. “There are more drugs in here than out on the street.”
Visitors smuggle drugs in by carrying them in their mouths or elsewhere, he says. It’s a profitable risk here, where something worth $15 on the outside goes for $500.
We walk by the clothing exchange, where prisoners drop off their dirty clothes before showering and pick up a new blue set afterwards. The shower room is spacious and open, where up to 200 prisoners shower at a time.
The four guards on shower duty each day rotate between the showers and the dining room for lunch and again at dinner. They call it meal and a show.
“We have really bad senses of humor,” Coolbaugh admits.
We move on to C Block, where the most recent murder occurred. It was Valentine’s Day 2006, two guys against one who refused to pay a gang rent to live in his cell.
“His head looked like someone stepped on a watermelon,” Coolbaugh says.
The victim was 40 days from being released. The two murderers are now confined to Death Row.
We step out into the cloudy day, walking past the teeming recreation yard to the dining hall.
“You’re about to get very popular,” our guide warns us.
The dining room seats 400 people, four to a table. A few inmates sit around playing cards, drinking coffee, laughing — watching us mostly. Hundreds more begin to file in from the rec yard for lunch, clamorous as kids after recess. Some stare at us; some grin; one tall guy waves.
The dining hall is divided by unwritten rules of race and gang allegiance. White Supremacists sit in one corner, Cripps and Bloods elsewhere. Hispanic gangs have their tables, Asian gangs have theirs.
And they protect their territory fiercely.
“Sitting wherever they want is the only freedom these guys have,” Coolbaugh says.
Past the rec yard, there are warehouses where prisoners work. They are cheap laborers on contract with the state, as well as with privately owned businesses and hospitals. There are the furniture factory, the metal shop, and the laundry room.
A middle-aged inmate with gray goatee and glasses chats with us, explaining the laundry process.
“I’m one of the highest jobs and I’m making $155 a month,” he says. “But I’ve been locked up 30 years. I better have a high-paying job.”
He seems like a nice guy.
Beyond more gates and fences and barred doors sits the Intensive Management Unit. This is the jail within the prison, where inmates are put for bad behavior – disrespecting or disobeying officers, fighting with other inmates, throwing feces.
Here, it looks like a prison. There is no color: just white walls and brown metal.
There are hoots and jeers from these inmates, their figures distorted by the metal lattice.
“They beat us!” an inmate yells.
“Not recently,” Coolbaugh says nonchalantly.
The cells consists of a bunk and a toilet, both cemented to the ground.
General population prisoners can spend most of the day out of their cells. Death Row inmates get up to five hours free time. Here in IMU, residents get 30 minutes in a cement rec room and 30 minutes in the shower, sometimes an hour with a visitor. The other 22 or 23 hours they spend alone in their cells.
Our guide saves the worst for last: the execution chamber.
The room is small and unimpressive. Blank white walls, mostly. Lots of windows, one for the executioner, a couple for attorneys and family in the adjoining viewing room.
At the center is the bed, where two people have been executed by lethal injection since the death penalty was reinstated in 1984. It is the stuff of horror films, with all its leather straps and cuffs and belts.
“Anyone want to climb up?” Coolbaugh asks.
No one takes the offer.
Back at the entrance, we pick up our I.D.s and keys and walk out into a midmorning Oregon downpour, back into society.
No one has escaped from this prison since 1992, and that escapee was caught the same day trying to rob a porn shop.
Seventeen years later, the security is much tighter. The inmates are counted and recounted daily. The gates have monitors that scan outgoing trucks for heartbeats.
No one escapes these days
Editor’s note: As Oregon’s capital, Salem is a city of public institutions. The Hilltop News is doing a three-part, up-close series on the justice system: the police, the courts and the prisons.