Inmates: Lax procedures, staff apathy led to outbreak at Ore. jail
Some inmates started an uprising that led to deputies taking shelter in a small office
By Jaimie Ding
MULTNOMAH COUNTY, Ore. — In mid-January, inmates at the Multnomah County Inverness Jail started testing positive for COVID-19. Two weeks later, over 140 have been infected.
The explosion in cases — the first major outbreak at Inverness since the pandemic started — has caused tension and frustration at the east Portland jail, which houses 512 men and women.
Inmates are scared and frustrated over being forced to live in quarters with COVID-positive bunkmates. Some started an uprising Sunday that led to deputies taking shelter in a small office. Work being done on electronics upgrades has forced overcrowding. And a county audit describes staff not taking protocols seriously and being undisciplined about mask use.
Public defenders and their clients in custody cite lax adherence to protocols, which allowed the virus to spread before measures could be taken to shut it down. And deputies point to the ongoing technology upgrade at the Multnomah County Detention Center in downtown Portland, which has closed 96 cells, causing overcrowding across the jails managed by the sheriff’s office.
Many of those in custody at Inverness have not been charged with a crime and are awaiting court proceedings. Some don’t have the option of bail; others simply cannot afford it.
The county says it has been developing stringent COVID protocols since February 2020 and taken steps to reduce risk within its jails, including reducing the population by 30%. These preventative measures kept COVID case numbers low — until now.
“New individuals to the system that are assigned housing are monitored for 14 days in single cells before being admitted to a dorm setting,” said Chris Liedle, spokesperson for the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office.
The first vaccinations at Inverness began Tuesday, Feb. 2, as the county administered doses to 108 adults in custody, and more are expected “later this week,” according to county spokesperson Julie Sullivan-Springhetti.
Since the beginning of the year, the jail has conducted 871 COVID tests, four times the number conducted in all of 2020, Sullivan-Springhetti said.
But criticism continues to come from inmates and public defenders for doing too little, too late. Nearly 30% of the jail population has been affected, according to the most recent count.
“There was no plan. This was all reactionary,” Autumn Shreve, a public defender with Multnomah Defenders Inc, said to a small crowd gathered late last week to protest jail conditions in front of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office.
JAIL PROCEDURES INEFFECTIVE, CONTRADICTORY
The way inmates are treated after experiencing COVID symptoms or testing positive has led to reluctance among those in custody to report symptoms.
Shreve said for her clients, reporting their symptoms led to solitary confinement — 22 hours a day in a cell, and 45 minutes walks in the morning and afternoon.
One inmate felt like people in his dorm were being punished for being sick, said Rowan Maher, a legal assistant at Metropolitan Public Defender.
Liedle said inmates who have tested positive have been moved to another dorm that is placed on isolation for about 14 days. Dorms with inmates who have been exposed to COVID-19 but test negative are placed on quarantine status, but inmates are still restricted from moving in and out of the dorm.
Public defender William Walsh said his clients have told him differently.
“The inmates are already upset because as a dorm gets a positive they just leave them in there, and pretty soon they’re all positive,” Walsh said.
He said this happened to several of his clients, where a dorm is locked down without removing the positive case and all the inmates in the dorm are tested until everybody eventually tests negative, he said. The inmates told him many of them have gotten sick this way.
Maher said she and others at her firm want more clarity on protocols for testing, moving people from the downtown detention center to Inverness, and dorm to dorm within the jail.
“There is just so little transparency in the status of the coronavirus outbreak at the jail,” Maher said.
TENSIONS BOILED OVER
Inmates, angry over what they perceive as the jail’s inability to stop the spread of COVID, have not stayed quiet.
A handful of inmates in a dorm that had its first positive COVID case Sunday protested later that night and trapped four deputies in a room after they responded with a stun gun and pepper foam, a defense lawyer and a sheriff’s spokesperson said Monday.
The protest began after an inmate started to show symptoms of the coronavirus and tested positive using a rapid test, said Walsh, who spoke to a client in the dorm.
In the afternoon, a different inmate asked when they would be tested for COVID. He didn’t get a response, he told Amanda Trujillo, co-founder of the Portland Freedom Fund, which posts bail for Black, brown and Indigenous people in the Portland metro area.
He asked a deputy again in the evening about getting COVID tests. The deputy said she would ask a sergeant, Trujillo said.
Then he asked a third deputy, who responded, “Shut the (expletive) up.” After the inmate got into an argument with that deputy, he was told to “cuff up” and be escorted out of the dorm to be put into “the hole” — solitary confinement. He refused.
In the ensuing struggle, he was tased twice, he told Trujillo, which sparked the other inmates to join in on the fray. He’s now in solitary confinement with about 12 other inmates who were involved, said Maher, who said she spoke with a different client.
Jail staff isn’t happy about the incident, either.
“In my 27 years of working here and in this jail, this is the only time this has ever happened,” said Mark Bunnell, president of the Multnomah County Corrections Deputy Association. “I’m pretty upset at the command staff for downplaying [what happened].”
Bunnell said tensions in the jail are the highest he’s ever seen, among both staff and inmates.
Maher said her clients are upset about deteriorating living conditions and the treatment of COVID-positive inmates.
“The quality of food has been declining because all the workers, the adults in custody who were working in the kitchen, got COVID or were exposed,” she said, which has led to a different group of people in charge of food prep.
As a result, people are receiving their meals late and getting smaller portions, inmates told her.
One of her clients with coronavirus is in a dorm with all COVID positive inmates. Because the dorm has gotten cold at night, some of the sick inmates — extreme chills is a symptom of the virus — have requested extra sweaters and blankets, but they have not been provided.
Maher and Carleene Houk, another legal assistant at Metropolitan Public Defender, said inmates in one dorm organized to refuse their food trays for one meal to demand an audience with a jail sergeant and ask for better medical care, protective face coverings, blankets and hand sanitizer. They were granted none of their requests, they said.
Inmates are also frustrated by delayed plea and release hearings caused by COVID, leading to many sitting in jail longer than they need to as the virus continues to spread.
Walsh had client who was preparing for a plea hearing but couldn’t go to court because of the medical lockdown.
Multnomah Public Defender Michael Rees had a release hearing for one of his clients planned for Jan. 29 abruptly cancelled as well after their dorm was locked down.
A remote hearing via video was not rescheduled until four days later — four extra days to risk being infected with coronavirus, Rees said.
“I think the jail should’ve started taking this seriously ages ago,” Rees said. “People sitting in there are at risk of serious illness and death.”
LACK OF COMPLIANCE PROMOTES SPREAD
In fall 2020, the Multnomah County Auditor’s Office conducted a survey of sheriff’s office staff in the jails about the pandemic response.
More than 50% who responded to the survey reported county employees wear face coverings only “sometimes” or “rarely,” according to the audit, which was released this month.
Jail staff said some coworkers were not taking COVID-19 seriously and not complying with face covering requirements. The sheriff’s office had not disciplined any staff for noncompliance with the face covering order at the time the audit was conducted, the report said.
Liedle said the sheriff’s office has received 16 complaints from both jail staff and law enforcement regarding not following face covering policies since April. Of the 16, 11 were investigated, and four resulted in disciplinary action.
An email from Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, Sheriff Mike Reese and District Attorney Mike Schmidt to county employees urged compliance with COVID safety requirements set by the county.
“Failure to comply with basic safety measures — from not continuously wearing face coverings to over-occupying elevators to disregarding physical distancing during interpersonal interactions — is taken seriously, and is subject to discipline,” the email said.
Zachary Hamilton, 35, was released from Inverness on Thursday evening. He said inmates were given a cloth mask that was washed once a week with the rest of the laundry. The mask was loose and hung below his chin, he said.
Current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines say to wash a cloth mask “whenever it gets dirty or at least daily.”
Liedle said new masks are available at any time by request.
Though deputies usually wear masks while interacting directly with inmates, Hamilton said he saw them pull down their masks while talking with other staff members and while doing rounds in the hallway.
Some inmates are skeptical about mask-wearing, however, given the crowded living conditions in a dorm.
Clients have told Maher, “I’m gonna get COVID regardless, so why should I wear this mask all the time,” she said.
In an Inverness dorm, several beds are located in an open air room, often bunked, and less than 6 feet apart in some instances, inmates told several public defenders. They also say the tables that the inmates eat at do not allow them to stay 6 feet away from others.
Bunnell, the deputies association president, blames the crowding on the technology upgrade project that has closed down a floor of the detention center jail.
The project replaces deteriorating security electronics from 2006 such as cameras, wiring, security control systems, access control systems and intercom phone systems. These systems are important to the safety of the staff and adults in custody, and better cameras have assisted with contact tracing efforts during a COVID outbreak last year, Liedle said.
He confirmed that 96 cells at the detention center are temporarily closed due to the upgrade.
Bunnell said he and other staff have made “repeated requests for [the upgrade] to stop” while the pandemic continues.
“I would say the best way to get ourselves safe is give us more cells to start quarantining properly,” Bunnell said.
LOW NUMBERS IN OTHER REGIONAL JAILS
Jails in Clackamas County and Washington County have experienced few cases of coronavirus since the pandemic started.
Neither of the county jails had active cases as of last week, and the Clackamas County Jail — with a population of about 226 — has only had one positive case since March. The jail has a capacity of 248, consisting of mostly single-occupancy cells and one dorm for up to 10 inmates.
The jail quarantines new adults in custody between 72 hours and 14 days depending on medical advice and examination, according to spokesperson Sgt. Marcus Mendoza. A COVID test is only administered if the arrestee is symptomatic or has had potential exposure to a positive case.
The Washington County Jail has had 11 cases among those in custody and seven staff cases. The latest population count is 354 out of a capacity 572, and the jail is housing no more than one person per cell. There is also one dorm, which has been closed.
New arrestees are placed in a group of adults booked on the same day and quarantined for 14 days. A COVID test is only administered if medical staff determine there’s a need, said spokesperson Sgt. Danny DiPietro.
In the Inverness Jail, only a small number of COVID positive inmates have developed symptoms, with no deaths among those in custody, Sullivan-Springhetti said. One person went to the hospital but has since returned.
The jail’s medical staff will continue to monitor COVID positive inmates for signs of severe illness and conduct rapid testing of anyone exposed to a known positive case, she said.
It’s yet to be seen if that will change the frustrations of the inmates.
“I don’t trust the jail at all,” Hamilton said.
(c)2021 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)