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Other Views: A prison improvement

Those who run prisons, including prisons in Oregon, face the difficult task of balancing inmate and staff safety against the mental health of some inmates. The situation is about to improve a bit in Oregon.

The Department of Corrections has reached an agreement with Disability Rights Oregon, a federally funded advocacy group, to improve conditions for the system's most severely mentally ill prisoners who are housed in its Behavioral Health Unit in Salem. The cost of the improvements is expected to be $8.2 million annually, money that will have to come from the Legislature.

Among the changes, prisoners will be given at least 20 hours per week outside their cells, half of which must be spent in structured activities, including treatment by mental health care providers. Too, corrections officials will seek to expand the physical size of the unit to create more space, making it easier to manage dangerous but ill prisoners.

While the changes fall far short of what the advocacy group sought from the Legislature last year, they're a much-needed improvement that should help prevent mentally ill prisoners from deteriorating in isolation.

Guarding prisoners, especially those who are particularly dangerous, is not simple. That's one good reason for the additional training. Guards and other staff will be given more information about such things as the side effects of medications as well as more training in crisis intervention.

The changes proposed should be good ones to improve the conditions for some of the state's most challenging prisoners.