READ – Corrections Grand Jury 2018 Report – Review of the Correctional Facilities In Multnomah County, Oregon (PDF)
A corrections grand jury highlighted concerns related to mental illness, staffing and overcrowding in Multnomah County jails in an annual report card released Thursday.
In the past year the county was forced to release 212 inmates due to overcrowding, according to the report. Ideally, Multnomah County jails would run between 82 to 85 percent capacity. Right now, the jails consistently run at 90 percent capacity or more. The emergency releases happen when the jail reaches 95 percent capacity.
The county has also recently slashed the number of beds available for inmates. Sheriff Mike Reese said they went from 1,310 beds in 2016 to 1,192 beds currently.
“It has made it more challenging to provide safe housing to adults in custody, and it has ended up in forced releases in the last year,” said Reese.
Jurors found the jails are also dealing with staffing shortages. There are currently 25 openings and more deputies are set to retire soon.
“The grand jurors report highlights the challenges of hiring professional staff at a time when the unemployment rate is so low, as well as the retirement wave we’re facing in our public safety organizations,” said Reese.
Jurors also found the county has spent more than $6.5 million to pay jail staff in overtime in 2018.
Jurors, however, commended the county’s pretrial and diversion programs as alternatives to jail. One of those programs, Close Street, is ranked as one of the best in the nation.
But they said more needs to be done.
The biggest problem, according the report, is mental health.
“The majority of inmates in the system increasingly have chronic mental health issues, medication needs, and/or substance abuse issues. All stakeholders agreed that jails are not the appropriate location for most of this population, and many should actually be in a clinical setting,” the jurors wrote.
Mental health experts agree. Emily Cooper, legal director for Disability Rights Oregon, says there are two reasons mental illness is so prevalent in jails.
“The first, I think, is the stigma and bias perpetrated against people with mental illness,” Cooper said.
She says the governments can’t criminalize things like homelessness, loitering, and trespassing. It doesn’t help.
Cooper says the second issue is a lack of community-based mental health support. She says people with mental health issues should be treated, not punished.
“Truly, every police officer I’ve ever met with, if there was a place where they could take these individuals where they can get treatment, they would do it. This isn’t about bad people, this is about bad systems that aren’t set up to help the most vulnerable,” she said.
A Judge Rejects Multnomah County’s Attempt to Quash Testimony Related to a Controversial Jail Use-of-Force Audit – Willamette Week, November 21, 2018
The ruling is the latest fallout from an audit that imploded Sheriff Dan Staton’s career.
On Nov. 16, a judge ruled Linda Yankee, a former chief deputy to onetime Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton, must answer questions in a whistleblower lawsuit.
“Settlement agreements shouldn’t be able to buy employees’ silence,” Multnomah County Circuit Judge Leslie Bottomly said in a ruling from the bench. “I will order Ms. Yankee to be deposed.”
That ruling is the latest fallout from an audit that imploded Staton’s career.
Three years ago, Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office staff prepared a controversial audit of corrections deputies’ use of force in county jails.
The key finding in the document pulled together by sheriff’s staff in August 2015: Black inmates made up 27 percent of the jails’ population but were the subject of 40 percent of the incidents in which deputies used force on inmates.
But according to the staffers responsible for the inflammatory findings, then-Sheriff Staton buried the document.
Lt. Brent Ritchie, Staton’s personal assistant at the time, alleges that after he briefed his boss on the racial disparities at the jails, he was demoted, stripped of his duties and sent to the sheriff’s office’s version of Siberia.
Staton’s alleged response to the audit set off a series of dominolike reactions that would result in the resignation or retirement of nearly his entire command staff and Staton’s own resignation under pressure in August 2016 (“Staton Announces Retirement,” WW, May 27, 2016).
But what began as the alleged cover-up of potential civil rights abuses has now become a First Amendment issue, as Multnomah County sought to block the testimony of one of Staton’s former top aides.
“What the county is trying to do is called ‘prior restraint,'” says Ritchie’s attorney, Sean Riddell. “The Constitution doesn’t allow that.”
The underlying issue in the dispute over whether Yankee should be allowed to testify is transparency. If public employers were allowed to gag whistleblowers like Yankee simply by paying them to shut up, it would eliminate a vital source of information about the inner workings of local and state government.
In effect, the county sought to block a former senior employee from providing information about how Staton managed a key public safety agency, which has an annual budget of $152 million and 815 employees.
Andrew Altschul, a Portland lawyer who regularly represents public employees, says he’s surprised the county would try to prevent Yankee from answering factual questions about her employment. He says such a legal strategy is highly unusual for a taxpayer-funded employer.
“It’s shocking, frankly,” Altschul says.
In his case, Ritchie is seeking compensation from the county for what he claims was Staton’s retaliation against him.
As part of that case, Riddell has sought to depose Yankee, who worked closely with Staton on budget and personnel matters.
“Yankee’s testimony and knowledge of Mr. Staton’s managerial behaviors and executive decisions is directly relevant to Mr. Ritchie’s matter,” Riddell argued in an Oct. 18 motion.
But the Multnomah County Attorney’s Office opposed Riddell’s request. The county cited a provision in a settlement agreement that sought to prevent Yankee from talking about the sheriff’s office as a condition of receiving about $188,000 from a tort claim that alleged Staton “ostracized” and demoted Yankee for her gender and use of medical leave.
When she accepted the money, Yankee agreed that anything that happened prior to the February 2016 settlement “will not be offered by Yankee or be admissible in any subsequent civil lawsuit, administrative hearing or other civil legal proceeding.”
The county said if Yankee were to testify in the Ritchie case, she would be breaching that settlement and would “open up the claim of rescission and potentially for needless further litigation.”
The county was in a tricky position from the outset of Ritchie’s case. As information about Staton’s management emerged in 2016, County Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury requested first an Oregon Department of Justice investigation into the sheriff’s actions and, when that inquiry concluded with no charges, ordered a human resources investigation of Staton. Both added to the pressure that ultimately led to his resignation.
But in court last week, senior assistant county attorney David Landrum argued Yankee had signed away her right to testify about Staton and, even if she hadn’t, had nothing useful to say. (Staton’s personal attorney, meanwhile, did not appear in court or respond to a request for comment.)
“The information she has is irrelevant,” Landrum told the court.
Riddell disagreed. “[The county’s] interpretation is that the people can never hear what Ms. Yankee has to say about Mr. Staton,” he said. “That’s unconstitutional.”
Judge Bottomly agreed with Riddell and ordered Yankee to show up for deposition.