In Memoriam

Harry R. Olsen

1950 – 2022

We are sad to announce that PHOENIX Rising Transitions founder, Harry “Musa” Olsen, recently passed after a short illness and hospitalization. 

Harry’s vision of PHOENIX began in the sweat lodge at Oregon State Penitentiary and included talks with several of his incarcerated friends. When he got out in 1991, he used his own experience of incarceration and transformation to create projects that he felt would benefit people who wanted to make genuine change. He sifted through many spiritual and psychological traditions, including studying with notable adepts and taking a pilgrimage to Turkey, for ways to talk with a variety of people about how to make deep and lasting change.  

Harry saw the relationship between individual prisoners and members of the community as a cultural interaction. He searched for a way to ease those cultural differences and found that the community organizing practice of one-on-one conversations was the perfect solution. These conversations bridge all kinds of divides between people and help humanize the other. So, Harry brought those principles, and lots of community folks, into the prison and watched as stigma and barriers broke down on both sides. This included an ongoing partnership with OHSU School of Nursing that brought scores of students in to talk one-on-one with prisoners. Together they were able to influence public policy and community attitudes that would help prisoners have a better chance at succeeding as community members. 

Harry learned to train others in community organizing-style leadership and brought that training into the prison environment. He also served as a Certified Peer Recovery Mentor for folks when they came home from prison. 

In addition to his work with PHOENIX he served as the circle leader for Sufis incarcerated in Oregon prisons. (Sufism is Islamic mysticism and includes the poet Rumi.) Harry was awarded the Outstanding Citizen Award for 2002-2003 by the Oregon Department of Corrections for leadership in volunteer activities. He also assisted several other religious and community organizations in launching their own programs and classes in Oregon prisons.

Harry served on the board of the Metropolitan Alliance for Common Good (MACG). He was a member of the Oregon Islamic Chaplains Organization. He was also a member of the Portland O.T.O. lodge. Harry was a founding member of Reentry Organizations and Resources (ROAR) and its Reentry Transition Center (now closed) to connect recently released prisoners with much-needed support. He received a general studies degree from Mount Hood Community College in 2000.

On a more personal note, Harry was a poet and a long-time fan of Bob Dylan. He studied poetry with Joseph Millar at Mount Hood Community College, refining his own innate gifts. His poetry focused on themes of incarceration, spirituality, and truth. His style turned his subjects on their ear so you could see them more clearly. Harry also loved music – whether the Beatles, Cream, the Doors, Metallica, Itzhak Perlman, Wynton Marsalis, Zakir Hussain (most of whom he saw in concert) – or the beautiful illahis (hymns) of Sufism. Harry loved animals, and animals loved him. He was a modern-day St. Francis who had as much affection for snakes as puppies, and they realized quickly that he was their friend. They felt safe with him. He recently rescued a pandemic stray, a cat named Merlin.

Harry is survived by his wife, Karen Meurer; his sons Bob Olsen and Jeremiah Olsen; grandsons Devin, Bailey, and Cameron; niece Jocelin; aunt Thelma; and several cousins. 


Celebration of Life Memorial Service for Harry R. Olsen

Sunday, October 30th, 2022

3:00 p.m.

Salt and Light Lutheran Church

5431 NE 20th Avenue

Portland, OR 97211


Memorial gifts may be made to: 

PHOENIX Rising Transitions

PO Box 723

Gresham, OR 97030 

OHA awards funds to PHOENIX to continue mentoring!

These funds are for mentoring in Washington and Clackamas Counties

Oregon Health Authority awarded PHOENIX funds to continue our mentor work in Washington and Clackamas counties. The legislature approved these funds after voters passed Ballot Measure 110 in November 2020. M110 was designed to treat addiction as a health issue rather than a criminal issue. The funds are for opening many more sites across the state to make treatment more accessible to those in need. All sites will center around a BHRN (Behavioral Health Resource Network). These are groups of nonprofits and other treatment facilities – or CBOs (Community-Based Organizations) – that work together to address the specific needs of each person. Some large CBOs will offer multiple services. Small CBOs – like PHOENIX – will offer more limited services. PHOENIX will continue to offer Peer Support, Mentoring, and Recovery Services.

Stay tuned for more details!

PHOENIX helped pass Measure 110

See how it’s going after its first year!

PHOENIX is part of a coalition – HJRA (Oregon Health Justice Recovery Alliance) – that was instrumental in encouraging voters to pass Measure 110 in November of 2020. It was designed to treat substance abuse as a health issue rather than a criminal issue. It removed criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of various drugs. It allows people to pay a $100 fine or get screened for addiction treatment. Accompanying legislation provided for increased funding for treatment throughout the state. M110 was expected to significantly reduce racial disparities in drug arrests as well. For PHOENIX Rising Transitions this was part of our ongoing work toward better health outcomes for people who have been incarcerated and our commitment toward eliminating racism in policing and the criminal justice system.

Racism and violence against people must be stopped!

Grief and rage have swept through our communities, our nation and around the world since the stark footage of George Floyd’s murder on Memorial Day. For those who have been impacted by this kind of policing, enough was enough. For others it was a wake-up call to the depths of racism still flourishing in this country. 

Systems that allow and perpetuate racism and violence against people must be stopped!

We stand in solidarity with those who have been victimized by these systems. We stand in solidarity with those making their voices heard, crying out for justice and transforming systems that are unjust at their core.

We are committed to listening. PHOENIX Rising Transitions is built on listening to the stories of those in our midst to discover common pressures on which we will act. We will continue to hold these conversations.

We are committed to action to eliminate systemic racism and police violence that is not accountable to the community. This includes educating ourselves and our members. It includes continuing to act alongside allied organization on local and state policy issues to ensure justice for all. We will share possible areas of action with you. 

Stay tuned. This statement is a start. We have a lot of work to do . . . together as a community.

Updated 09/19/2021.

OUR VISION IS TO KEEP PEOPLE IN OREGON PRISONS SAFE

We, the members of PHOENIX Rising Transitions, are deeply concerned about the possibility of rapid spread of COVID-19 in Oregon prisons. We propose, alongside others in the community, actions that will result in healthy outcomes for those living and working behind bars. 

Recent news items about the spread of COVID-19 in prisons throughout the country, as well as reports from the prisoners we work with, have been alarming. With confirmed cases among staff and prisoners at Oregon Department of Corrections prisons, both are now at immediate and elevated risk of a concentrated and swift spread of COVID-19. A significant number of prisoners are especially vulnerable to the current pandemic. Many have myriad risk factors, including respiratory conditions, heart disease, and diabetes. Additionally, Oregon has many elderly prisoners especially susceptible to dying from COVID-19. This can lead to a catastrophic mortality rate if this is not addressed in a precise, urgent manner.

While the Oregon Department of Corrections has taken steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it is clear that they cannot contain the viral contagion when one takes into account the medical capabilities, architecture, layout, and sanitizing methods available. Those who live and work in corrections facilities are now facing an immediate risk of exposure and infection. To mitigate this risk, we urge the following:

I. In-Prison Mitigation Measures

Provide for adequate social distancing at all places and times in the prison – especially providing for more space and/or adequate barriers between sleeping prisoners.

Prisoners report that they are currently experiencing some distancing and staggering of schedules throughout the day, but are then sleeping in 80-person dorms with bunks spaced three feet apart at night. They are often not adequately distanced in the dining hall or in bathrooms. We propose that main hallways and corridors, unused classrooms and even exercise yards can be used to expand available space for adequate social distancing.

Ensure that staff are responsive to basic hygiene support by replacing soap in a timely manner.

Soap is not always available for adequate hand washing because staff are slow to refill soap dispensers though the prison has enough in stock.

Deliver masks to prisoners and staff as promised.

The Department of Corrections is working on getting two masks per person for staff and prisoners. It is unclear as of this writing whether or not they have been delivered.

Ensure that staff showing symptoms of COVID-19 (coughing, fever, etc.) are not at work and that they get tested before returning.

Our students report that staff with fevers have worked entire shifts in dorm units in close contact with prisoners. 

Continue comprehensive testing in each prison. 

ODOC has a comprehensive testing protocol established. We encourage continued use of this protocol.1

Create proper triage, treatment, and quarantine areas, not cells used for solitary confinement.

Sick prisoners who are seriously symptomatic are being held in isolation units normally used for solitary confinement. For many prisoners, this is a serious deterrent to reporting symptoms due to the trauma incurred by past experiences with solitary confinement.

II. Early Release Options

Adequate social distancing within prisons requires a significant reduction in the number of people held in Oregon’s prisons. Therefore, PHOENIX Rising Transitions calls for the following broader approaches to reducing the prison population.2

Approve early release for eligible prisoners, such as the elderly, medically compromised, people charged with non-violent crimes and those scheduled to be released within the next 3-6 months.  

Gov. Kate Brown has stated that she is not considering any broad early release measures at this time, but will consider releases on a case-by-case basis3. Given the strong possibility of the rapid spread of COVID-19 in prison settings, we urge Gov. Brown to reconsider this as early release is the best means to stop its spread. Even if Gov. Brown continues to consider releases case-by-case, this should be expedited to thin out prison populations in order to keep people in prison safe.

Oregon should utilize empty buildings – like hotels and other lodging accommodations – as well as adding capacity to existing re-entry programs to house both those in normal transition and any potential early releases.

Some Oregon lodging accommodations already have experience housing individuals upon release from prison, and other hotels are showing great leadership in housing vulnerable communities safely. Still other vacant hotels can similarly be used as places where people can be housed and supervised post-release. We must address the significantly limited options faced by people being released from prison at this time while re-entry programs have been forced to reduce their number of residents to facilitate adequate social distancing.

Broaden eligibility for short-term transitional leave (STTL) and Alternative Incarceration Program (AIP).  

STTL and AIP are approaches that Oregon has used for several years to safely return people to their families and communities when they are near the end of prison sentences. People released under STTL or in AIP can be safely supervised in their communities and should be considered when deciding whom to release. STTL and AIP could also be made more broadly available to others doing time, increasing the number of prisoners eligible for an early release.

Support community-based alternatives to incarceration and develop diversion programs for people convicted of addiction-driven drug and property crimes. 

Several community-based alternatives to incarceration have successfully and safely reduced our prison bed use in the past. Many more can qualify. This can be done in a calculated and safe way with any method of broad screening prior to release.

We can slow or stop the spread of COVID-19 in our prisons and communities, but the time available to attempt these solutions is dwindling quickly.

Note: This statement is a working document to guide us in an overall response to the presence of COVID-19 in prisons. We expect to update it as new information is available.

Sources: 

  • 1Department of Corrections website – COVID-19 Response: https://www.oregon.gov/doc/covid19/Pages/covid19-tracking.aspx
  • 2Based on Early Release Options, Partnership for Safety and Justice, Press Release, April 23, 2020.
  • 3“State said up to 6,000 Oregon inmates would face release to allow social distancing; Gov. Kate Brown said no,” The Oregonian, April 15, 2020. 

PHOENIX Rising Transitions is a community-based nonprofit bringing together prisoners, former prisoners, and community members to facilitate the personal transformation and successful transition of people as they rejoin the community after prison. Our goal is to transform lives and transform the community to reduce the likelihood that people will commit new crimes and return to prison. We have been working in Oregon prisons – primarily Columbia River Correctional Institution in Portland – and with mentees in the Portland metro area since 2001. 

Gov. Brown Signs SB 360

17-09.19 - Gov. Brown Signs SB 360The Oregon legislature passed SB 360 in June 2017. Gov. Kate Brown signed it into law in July. On Tuesday, September 19th, PHOENIX staff members Karen Meurer and Harry Olsen attended the ceremonial signing in Salem along with bill sponsor, Sen. Lew Frederick. The bill was one of four re-entry laws signed that day. SB 360 allows people coming home from prison to cover some court and post-prison supervision costs with community service. PHOENIX members had identified the burden of these costs as an area of concern during a MACG listening campaign in May 2015. PHOENIX and MACG members worked on the issue for over two years, including delivering testimony to three different legislative committees. We appreciate the work of Sen. Frederick and his chief of staff, Troy Duker to make this bill a reality. We also appreciate the work of PHOENIX and MACG members who contributed to the testimony efforts including Gary Griffin, Frank Eaton, Bev Logan, Michelle Bracy, Nathan Pulcipher, Greg Blank, Daniel Steckler, Ezequiel Ramirez, Thomas Poarch and Harry Olsen.

Release Date

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OHSU School of Nursing students, Samantha Ross and Ariana Cooley, compiled this 36-page booklet in the summer of 2016 that brings together three years of student research and our stories about the impact of incarceration on health and what we as a community can do. This is packed with research, information, stories, interviews and the PHOENIX model of building a culture of relationships. Download a copy here:

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