A dormitory inside Inverness Multnomah County Jail Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office
Life inside Multnomah County Jail facilities is disproportionately worse for people who are black or have mental illness, according to an audit released Wednesday. Investigationconducted by the Multnomah County Auditor’s Office, found that black inmates and those with mental illness are more likely to face disciplinary action – particularly in the form of solitary confinement – and use of force than their peers behind bars.
The team of auditors based the audit on data collected between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2021.
The audit was, in part, prompted by a Disability Rights Oregon 2017 Reportwhich exposed poor conditions for mentally ill people held in Multnomah County Jail facilities.
The county audit shows that many of the issues identified by Disability Rights Oregon remain.
“Mental health and corrections experts have found that it is common for people with mental illness to find it very difficult to follow strict rules and to be likely to break the rules when under stress,” indicates the audit. “Over the three-year period we looked at, we found that when sheriff staff determined that these people had broken the rules, they were then frequently placed in solitary confinement. This was found to be harmful even for people without mental health issues and was particularly harmful to those who do.”
According to the data, 19% of incarcerated people with mental disorders were placed in solitary confinement as punishment, while only 7% of people without mental illness faced this type of discipline. The audit also found that people with mental illness were about nine times more likely to be subjected to the use of force by a prison employee than those without mental illness.
The audit explains that when people are charged with misconduct while incarcerated, they are usually moved to a different cell in “disciplinary accommodation”. This can be a confusing process for someone with mental illness.
“When individuals resist the move, Sheriff’s Office staff use force to move the individual – in some cases staff used pepper spray or Tasers to comply,” the audit said. “The move to disciplinary accommodation also involves a strip search upon arrival in the new cell. Individuals who resist the search are detained while their clothes are cut. The trauma of the move, followed by isolation, is particularly harmful to people with mental disorders.”
These findings are reminiscent of problems within the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) that brought the US Department of Justice (DOJ) to town in 2012. After finding that PPB officers used disproportionate force against people in mental health crisis, the DOJ reached a settlement agreement with the city to address the issue — an agreement to which the city remains beholden.
To address issues raised during the audit, County Auditor Jennifer McGuirk recommended that the Multnomah County Sheriff‘s Office, which oversees the prison system, “eliminate the use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary sanction for people with mental disorders”. She also suggested that the office increase the number of housing units for people with mental illness, as staff had told her that the space currently available was insufficient.
The report also illustrates the disproportionate treatment of black inmates in Multnomah County jails.
“During our three-year review period, we performed analyzes of disciplinary data and found that misconduct citations were disproportionately distributed to Black adults in custody,” the audit said. “We found the difference to be statistically significant, meaning they were probably not the result of chance.”
According to the data, black people were more than twice as likely to be subjected to the use of force as others. In a survey the audit team distributed to inmates, black adults said they felt less safe with corrections assistants than those of other races.
To address this imbalance, McGuirk recommended the sheriff’s office “contract with professionals for cultural competency training as well as identify and address implicit racial biases.”
McGuirk overall urged the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office to eliminate the use of any type of discipline involving solitary confinement in the jail, to provide training for deputies in an effort to reduce misconduct citations, and to asked the office to develop an “independent review function” for prison operations, including discipline and use-of-force incidents.
In his response to the audit, Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese said his office is reviewing the prison’s disciplinary system, but removing solitary confinement as a form of punishment is not possible. – not be an option.
“A new system will consider sanctions aimed at effectively modifying behavior rather than simply reducing [time outside of a cell]”, Reese wrote in a response letter. “A segregation ban, as defined in this report, may not be sufficient to protect adults in our care and staff from those who have shown a propensity to extreme violence. However, it is recognized that a system should not be centered on isolation.”
Reese also said his office is already implementing some of the audit’s other suggestions, including data collection and de-escalation training for deputies.
“I am committed to evaluating our policies and practices,” said Reese, whose term ends later this year, “to ensure we are meeting our values and the expectations of the community.”