Business as usual at the Multnomah County jail

Editorial column by Steve Duin, from The Oregonian September 29, 2012

Kenneth Yeo was shooting hoops in Hillsboro five years ago when he noticed the Washington Country sheriff’s patrol cars circling the park and decided the jig was up.

As the hoop was a few short blocks from the county jail, Yeo was once again imagining things. That’s not surprising: He has been diagnosed with anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder and post traumatic stress syndrome.

Nonetheless, Yeo presented himself at the jail and asked if he had an outstanding warrant.

As a matter of fact, Yeo did — failure to appear in Multnomah County — so Washington County took him into custody.

Yeo, 29, had a history at the facility; he was jailed there for two months in 2005. “They knew what happened to him when he didn’t get his meds,” says Joel Greenberg, an attorney with Disability Rights Oregon. Yeo reminded the intake staff that he needed those drugs.

But it was the Memorial Day weekend. When the jail staff phoned Yeo’s provider, it didn’t get a call back, much less the essential medications.

By the time Yeo was transferred to the Justice Center in Portland on May 27, he was coming apart. And the Multnomah County deputies, unlike those in Hillsboro, had no sense of Yeo’s medical history.

Yeo was placed in a separation cell. Greenberg says: “Within the next five hours, he took his clothes off, stood on the toilet and did calisthenics. They have a policy that no one gets housed until they’re seen by medical, but medical never saw him.”

Instead, Yeo was moved into a disciplinary unit. “Over the next two days, he’s twice found in a flooded cell, covered with his own feces and sliding back and forth in the water,” Greenberg says. “Sorta like a slip-and-slide.

“He’s completely decompensated now. Completely out of his skull.” And still without the meds he needs for anxiety, sleep and psychosis.

Thus, when the deputies eventually attempt the cell extraction, it didn’t go well. Yeo was tased. A cut on his head required stitches. He would spend a month at OHSU Hospital, Greenberg says, “before he’s lucid enough to see his family. Depending on whether you believe me, he’s never really been the same.”

When Yeo brought this story to Greenberg in 2008, the attorney figured he had a significant tort claim.

But he also had a case of deja vu. Too many people struggling with mental illness were getting lost in a county jail that was both underfunded and overcrowded.

So Greenberg approached Jacqueline Weber, a county attorney, in February 2009 and proposed the following: The county should compensate Yeo and pay “modest” attorney fees, a total of $100,000.

And it should direct the rest of its potential financial exposure in a federal civil-rights lawsuit to changes in “how the jail processes, assesses and treats inmates with obvious or known mental illness.”

Greenberg’s ideas? Equip each inmate with a medical “passport.” Ensure that mental health professionals who can provide psych meds are on site 24/7.

Train corrections staff to understand that when they can’t determine whether the inmate’s psychosis is the result of drug use or mental illness, they can’t assume drugs are the problem.

Forty-three months later?

“We settled for $80,000,” Greenberg says. “The systemic changes they agreed to were feeble. I don’t think they’re going to change what happens at the jail.”

Because he’s been around the block a few times — he was a special-ed teacher and public defender before joining Disability Rights Oregon — Greenberg recounts this with wry resignation.

The county’s risk management was dismissive. When Greenberg decided he had no choice but to file his lawsuit, he lost his leverage. The county went on the defensive, with attorney Patrick Henry at middle linebacker.

“An opportunity lost,” Greenberg said. “Neither side got anything useful.”

Not for lack of trying, argues David Austin, the county’s communications director:

“We engaged Mr. Greenberg in conversation about ideas he had on a number of occasions and encouraged him to give us specific ideas on how we might improve the system of care. Taxpayers pay for this system that cares for some of the most vulnerable people and we hear from mental health providers and clients who get services all the time.

“The question we ask? Will the proposal lead to improved patient health and patient outcomes? Unfortunately, we are not able to agree to implement proposals that would cause a costly redirection of resources to an already underfunded system.

“It’s not realistic to bring in more doctors at the jail for a system that’s been faced with making cut after cut after cut.”

Which means that you don’t need Kenneth Yeo’s imagination to realize the Kenneth Yeo debacle didn’t change a thing.