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Mentally Ill Woman Sues Over Seg-Cell Sex; County Settles for $40,000

Twenty-nine-year-old Misha Cooper has a long history of mental illness and criminal offenses. In May 2006, she was confined in the Multnomah County Detention Center (MCDC) in Portland, Oregon. Due to her mental health issues she was placed in a special segregation unit consisting of five single cells.

One of the cells was occupied by DeRay Willis, 20, who was in segregation because he had attempted to escape by placing a homemade mannequin in his bed.

As previously reported in PLN [Jan. 2008, p.12], on May 1, 2006 at 8:05 a.m., jail guards electronically opened Willis’ cell for a 15-minute walk. At the end of his walk Willis was seen returning to his cell; a guard walked over to a control panel, temporarily losing sight of Willis, and shut the cell door.

Another male prisoner in the unit was then let out for a walk. After he returned to his cell, guards closed the cell door.

A guard then entered the unit and conducted a visual check. He believed all the prisoners were in their cells. Willis, however, had placed extra linen in his bunk to resemble a body, and was actually hiding in the shower area. According to a subsequent review by the Multnomah County DA’s office, “Upon entry into the shower, there is an area were a person can hide behind a wall. Apparently this is what Mr. Willis did.” The guard did not discover him.

At 8:35 a.m., Cooper’s cell door was opened electronically so she could come out for a walk. She took a short walk, returned to her cell, and guards shut the door.

Half an hour later a second jail guard entered the segregation unit and performed a visual security and welfare check. Nothing unusual was noted.

At 11:00 a.m., guards received an unexpected call from the intercom in Cooper’s cell. It was Willis, who said “I was just kicking it with Ms. Cooper and I am ready to go back to my cell.”

A guard went to Cooper’s cell, where he saw both Cooper and Willis. He then checked Willis’ cell and observed what “appeared to be a body lying in bed with its head covered.” When guards entered the cell, they “noted that he had stockpiled extra linen items and had fashioned a human shape under the blankets.”

Neither Cooper nor Willis cooperated in the ensuing investigation, but Cooper reportedly said “look, this is the first time I had sex in a long time, and I’m tired of all these people tryin’ to talk to me about it.”

The District Attorney highlighted the incident in a review of jail operations that was released on Nov. 1, 2006. “It is difficult to understand how, in what were supposedly several safety checks, a dummy could not have been discovered in Mr. Willis’ cell,” the report stated. “It is more difficult to understand how the presence of two inmates, one male and the other female, perhaps undressed, went undetected.”

Cooper told investigators that “she did not want to prosecute, stating she enjoyed having intercourse” with Willis, wrote deputy district attorney Don Rees. “Although the victim has a history of mental health issues, there is no evidence she suffers from the sort of severe mental disability which would legally render her unable to consent to a sex act.” Yet under Oregon law, mentally ill persons lack the capacity to consent.

Cooper filed suit against the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office in June 2007, alleging that she had been sexually assaulted by Willis due to the jail’s flawed training, communications and security procedures. The lawsuit also alleged that Cooper was subjected to “cruel and unusual punishment” due to staff negligence. “We think it’s symptomatic of a larger problem, which is people don’t feel safe in the jails,” said Cooper’s attorney, Leah Greenwald.

The county settled the case in June 2008 for $40,000. Changes have reportedly been made at the facility to ensure that similar incidents do not occur. See: Cooper v. Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, U.S.D.C., D.Or., Case No. 3:07-cv-01014-PK.

Sources: The Oregonian, District Attorney’s Review of Jail Operations, Nov. 2006

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Related legal case

Cooper v. Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office