Changing the Prison Environment at OSP

This article was written by Tonya Gushard, a Public Information Officer and employee at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Oregon. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Behind these walls we are one community. OUR community. The community we call the Oregon State Penitentiary.

Our community consists of over 350 employees, over 2,000 adults in our care and custody (AICs), and hundreds of volunteers and contractors. The Oregon Department of Corrections’ mission is to hold offenders accountable for their actions and reduce the risk of future criminal behavior, but it is our passion to create a safe and healthy environment, with the responsibility of creating better neighbors where positive and pro-social change occurs. A place where people will become healthy, productive, and contributing members of society.

95% of the adults in our care and custody will serve their sentence and release back into our communities; they will be our neighbors, our co-workers, employees at local businesses, shopping alongside us at the grocery store, their kids will play with our kids…you get the idea. The employees who work here are at a higher risk of premature death, depression, alcoholism, PTSD, suicide, and divorce due to the stress of the occupation. None of this is okay.

Historically, some would say prisons have merely cultivated unhealthy staff and better “inmates” (not people). Oregon has decided it is time for change! Superintendent Kelly challenged those of us in this community to think about how we make our community safer and better, both inside and outside our walls, for every single person who works or resides here.

So, how do we start the process of changing an entire society? We talk! We put aside our titles and simply come together as human beings who want the healthiest and best possible environment for everyone to thrive. On December 3, 2019 we had our first forum to start those conversations.

The photo above memorializes the first time this volume of staff, AICs, and contractors came together as one community to change our environment and our outcomes. Here at the Penitentiary, we are determined to change the world one interaction at a time. This is the beginning of our journey.