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Guest Column: Rallying the community for jail changes

Last year, local citizens began picketing at the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facility (NORCOR) when immigration detainees held there initiated a hunger strike over living conditions.

These detainees are housed under contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The group that formed around that effort, Gorge ICE Resistance (GIR), voiced concerns that our jail is not appropriate for housing immigration detainees.

As we learned more about the complexities, a new group emerged from GIR to focus on the governmental structure behind NORCOR, and how it operates.

The NORCOR Community Resources Coalition (NCRC) began to interview key community leaders about their perspectives and knowledge of the jail and details on budgets, policies and procedures, and resources.

We met with Tyler Stone (Wasco County administrative officer), Tom McCoy (NORCOR board chair), Scott Hege (Wasco County commissioner) and Wasco County Sheriff Lane Magill. We learned much about how the jail operates and what the four counties and their sheriffs have done in the past to try to secure stable funding.

Meeting with more leaders was stopped abruptly when, due to a taxpayers lawsuit filed in July 2017, the board's attorney advised board members and other county officials not to speak with anyone privately about the jail. We continue to address our officials in public meetings.

Since January 2017, the Chronicle has reported on a number of events that have tarnished the image of NORCOR and its management. In part, we have read about two hunger strikes, a $40,000 legal settlement for detaining a man beyond his release date at the request of ICE, and a very critical review of the juvenile detention facility by Disability Rights Oregon.

Recently, we learned of an extensive federal report issued in November 2017 that listed 81 violations of ICE rules for detention facilities.

Volunteer attorneys and clergy have been visiting and interviewing as many of the detainees as possible. While the details of such visits are confidential, they have heard multiple reports of inadequate clothing, exercise and food, expensive phone rates, no visitation, poor access to legal representation, strip searches, and more.

Some detainees have been held in NORCOR for many months. All of these were under Administrator Bryan Brandenburg's watch.

While ICE determines who is sent here, conditions at the jail are under the direction of Mr. Brandenburg.

As more details come to light, we now question Mr. Brandenburg's competency and integrity as a manager.

Otherwise, why would such reports continue to surface after 14 months of community effort to get improvements?

Now, Mr. Brandenburg has resigned and the jail is seeking a replacement.

It came as a shock to see that, as outgoing administrator, he will be involved in hiring his successor, which is unheard of in the professional world.

Previously, a recruiting firm was used to replace former administrator Jim Weed. This time around, it seems that Mr. Brandenburg is in charge of the process.

His resignation was accepted in executive session of the board on June 21. He apparently presented the board with a hiring plan that included an application deadline of July 20, and minimum requirements for the position which are lower than in previous postings.

Even Sherman County Sheriff Lohrey has expressed concern that there is too short a timetable in which to find top quality candidates, conduct interviews, and allow time for the chosen candidate to leave a current job and transfer to a new one.

Given the problems that have occurred under Mr. Brandenburg's watch, is it wise to give him this power and responsibility? The county governments, through their representatives on the NORCOR board, are responsible for setting the standards and hiring a replacement.

We ask county leaders and the NORCOR board to intervene now.

Hire an interim administrator, and allow a longer period in which to recruit and hire a permanent replacement. Include members of the public and staff in the screening and interviewing process, as was done in hiring the new president at Columbia Gorge Community College.

And we advise, as well, that Mr. Brandenburg be removed from the hiring process.

NORCOR is the only jail remaining in Oregon to house ICE detainees. Others have stopped doing so under legal advice and in response to community demand.

It's time to make our jail into a true correctional institution, not a punitive holding facility.

Inmates need help to overcome addictions, deal with mental health issues, and learn new ways to live in society peacefully and productively.

With whole-community cooperation, we can make positive changes at NORCOR that will benefit everyone involved – the public, law enforcement, staff, and inmates.

— Teresa Hepker wrote this column on behalf of the NORCOR Community Resources Coalition.


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