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Largest Oregon Jail a Cesspool of Misconduct and Mismanagement, Report Finds; Sheriff Faulted and Under Fire

On November 1, 2006, the Multnomah County District Attorney?s (DA?s) Office in Portland, Oregon released a blistering 63-page report that found systemic, shocking problems in the state?s largest jail system. ?Conservative? in their findings, the two veteran prosecutors who served as investigators, John Bradley and Chuck French, found a system that was broken at virtually every level.

Faulting both Multnomah County Sheriff Bernie Giusto and the Board of County Commissioners (the Board), the DA investigators demanded immediate action. ?The questions we raise cannot be answered by saying nothing can be done,? their report stated. ?Necessary changes must be made.?

An Unprecedented Investigation

The unprecedented 4-month investigation by the DA?s office was requested by County Commissioner Lisa Naito in response to a rash of security lapses at the Multnomah County Detention Center (MCDC), culminating in the beating death of a pre-trial detainee by a cellmate with a long history of violence. [See: PLN, Dec. 2006, p.8].

The investigation began in July 2006 in conjunction with an annual review by the Corrections Grand Jury. Hundreds of witnesses provided testimony or were interviewed. Ultimately, many of the DA?s findings cited the same chronic problems criticized in past Corrections Grand Jury reports.

Preventable Murder

As previously reported in PLN, Thomas Gordon was transferred to MCDC to face prosecution for a 2001 Portland murder he had confessed to while serving time in Washington state. By any measure Gordon was extremely dangerous, having amassed over 50 prison rule violations, most of which involved violence toward staff and other prisoners.

Gordon was initially confined in a single cell at MCDC, and a safety alert was issued to jail staff to use ?extreme caution? around him. However, despite Gordon?s history of unprovoked violence, on June 15, 2005 he was moved into a two-man cell with Dennis Saban.

The next morning the jail guard left the unit unsupervised for an extended period of time. When he returned, Gordon was kicking his cell door. The guard looked in the cell, which was covered with blood, and saw Saban lying motionless on the floor.

Saban was rushed to the hospital where he died on June 29, 2005. Gordon later pleaded guilty to murdering Saban and the County paid Saban?s family $120,000 to settle their wrongful death suit.

The DA investigators found that ?had the officer been at his post Mr. Gordon would not have killed Mr. Saban.? They determined that it was common practice for guards to leave units unsupervised for 30 minutes, several times throughout their shifts. The DA?s report concluded that Gordon never should have been placed in a cell with Saban.

Cellblock Sex

In April 2006, DeRay Willis was put in segregation after he attempted to escape from MCDC. The segregation unit had five cells, one of which was occupied by a female detainee, Misha Cooper.

On May 1, 2006, Willis was let out of his cell for a 15-minute walk. The guard, assuming Willis had returned to his cell afterward, shut the cell door. After letting another male prisoner out for a walk, the guard did a tier check and determined that all the prisoners were in their cells.
However, Willis was actually hiding in the shower; he had placed extra linen in his bed to resemble a body.

Cooper was then let out for her walk. After just a few minutes she returned to her cell and the guard closed her door. A sergeant conducted a tier check but noted nothing unusual.

Several hours later, Willis called on the intercom from Cooper?s cell. ?I was just kicking it with Ms. Cooper and I am ready to go back to my cell,? he said. Neither Willis nor Cooper cooperated with the investigation, but indicated their sexual encounter was consensual.

The DA investigators questioned how it was possible for a prisoner to hide in a shower and accumulate enough linen to disguise the fact that he was no longer in his cell, and faulted a lack of information given to guards about Willis? escape risk.

Mentally Ill Detainee Dies

On September 17, 2006, James Chasse, a 42-year old man who was known to suffer from mental illness, was seen ?acting strangely.? When police attempted to talk to Chasse, he ran. A police officer chased him down and tackled him; other officers wrestled with Chasse and Tasered him in a brawl described as ?chaos.? At some point the officers observed that Chasse had lost consciousness, and an ambulance was called.

Chasse regained consciousness before the ambulance arrived; the medical response team conducted a brief examination and determined he did not need to be hospitalized. He was then transported to MCDC.

Chasse was placed in an isolation cell and his restraints were removed. While in the cell he was observed having difficulty breathing. A nurse watched him through the cell window but did not enter the cell; she told police to take him to the hospital. Chasse stopped breathing en route and later died.

The jail nurse was informed that Chasse might not have been breathing before he was placed in the isolation cell. She knew there had been a struggle but was not given any specific details. ?She was unaware that one of the officers had attempted to use a Taser charge on him,? the DA?s report noted.

The investigators cited a lack of communication and questioned whether there was a better alternative to arresting mentally ill people like Chasse. ?Too often arrest and jail are the only immediate solutions for dealing with mental health problems ? jails should be used as the last resort,? they said.

Out-of-Control Costs

In addition to procedural breakdowns and security lapses, investigators found the Sheriff?s financial practices misleading and unreliable. ?We found so many discrepancies in their financial procedures we ultimately concluded we could not rely on their financial conclusions and would need to hire an outside financial analyst to determine the costs associated with running the corrections division of the Sheriff?s Office,? wrote the investigators.

?Multnomah County operates some of the most expensive jails in the nation,? the report noted. It costs an average of $157 per day to house an adult prisoner in Multnomah County, while a neighboring county houses adult prisoners for $89 a day.

Numerous reasons were cited for the excessive costs, including labor contracts; sick leave, overtime and comp time abuses; inadequate staffing; and contract losses.

Sheriff Largely to Blame

The DA investigators laid much of the blame for a jail system that had failed at virtually every level at Sheriff Giusto?s feet. Giusto?s poor management, misleading financial practices and refusal to take responsibility or provide strong leadership had created a dangerous, money-wasting system that teetered on the brink of collapse, according to the investigators.

The lack of leadership also extended to the Board of County Commissioners, the DA?s report found. The Board is required to inspect the jails and report any violations of law to the DA?s office. However, the investigators found that ?to date there is still no evidence that the commissioners are complying with this legal obligation in any systematic fashion.?

Mixed Reaction to the Report

County Commissioner Naito found the report troubling. ?There sure are a lot of major concerns,? she said. ?It?s quite disturbing, looking at the jail bed cost, inmate supervision, sick leave abuse, the list goes on.? Commissioner Maria Rojo deSteffey wasn?t as moved. ?I wasn?t surprised at all, frankly.?

deSteffey took issue with the findings against the Board, noting that the Board had tried to supervise Giusto, who boasted about his independence as an elected official. ?How do you provide oversight when you have no authority, and the Sheriff says this is my organization and you have no say?? deSteffey asked.

Flexing his muscles, banging on a table, shooting imaginary pistols in the air and fuming to the point of near rambling, Giusto looked like a buffoon as he lashed out at the DA?s report.

He questioned facts, criticized the findings and said the report was actually an indictment of other county leaders ? including District Attorney Michael Schrunk ? and their lack of interest in and support of the criminal justice system. Sheriff Giusto took issue with the report?s tenor and promised a detailed rebuttal.

?As of right now, I am going to stop using the term ?corrections? to talk about what we do,? proclaimed Giusto. ?We?re not correcting anyone. We?re warehousing them. This is a jailin? system ? j-a-i-l-i-n, no ?g.? ? We?re all about being the Arkansas of the West Coast. If that?s what people want, I can do that.?In the mother of all understatements, DA investigator John Bradley said Giusto?s ?reaction today has been defensive. We understand that, but I hope at some point he looks at what we said.?

He did look, and on November 22, 2006, the Sheriff issued a 39-page response to the DA?s report. While still defensive, Giusto dropped his earlier theatrics and assumed a more measured tone.

?The purpose of the report is not to argue with the district attorney about their observations; it?s to take seriously what they said,? Giusto stated.

Yet Giusto still blamed county staff, his predecessors and the Board for creating many of the problems highlighted by the DA?s office. ?Few of these issues are my fault,? he stated. ?I take responsibility because I?m in this office, but I only take responsibility because I?m here now. Other people had responsibility before me and ignored those responsibilities.?

On the heels of the DA?s report, the Corrections Grand Jury issued a separate 16-page report that reinforced the investigators? findings.

Complaints and Calls for Reform

In April 2007, Robert Kim, an Oregon businessman, filed a complaint against Sheriff Giusto with the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST). The complaint included dozens of accusations of mismanagement, inappropriate personal relationships, and giving misleading statements to state investigators.

The DPSST applies a moral fitness standard which prohibits ?acts and conduct which would cause a reasonable person to have substantial doubts about the individual?s honesty, fairness, respect for the rights of others or for the laws of the state.? A finding against Giusto on any of the claims could lead to the loss of his law enforcement certification, forcing his resignation.

Soon after learning of the DPSST complaint, Giusto ordered his staff to investigate Kim?s background using a federal information database. Giusto boasted that he routinely orders background searches on people who file complaints against the Sheriff?s Office. ?All I wanted to do was figure out who this guy was and if I should be concerned for this agency,? he claimed.

The Oregonian, the newspaper with the largest circulation in the state, called Sheriff Giusto?s background checks of accusers ?more than just aggressive. They are forms of intimidation and look more like misuse of the database for personal and political reasons than official business.?
The newspaper?s editorial board encouraged DPSST to carefully examine the complaints against the Sheriff, and called for his resignation.

The DPSST is investigating three claims against Giusto. The first accuses him of misrepresenting his knowledge about former Governor Neil Goldschmidt?s sexual abuse of a 14-year-old girl in the 1970?s. Giusto served as Governor Goldschmidt?s state police driver at the time that Giusto allegedly gave Fred Leonhardt, a former political staffer, details about the sexual abuse. Sheriff Giusto referred to Leonhardt as ?an angry man who holds a grudge for years.?

On November 15, 2007, the DPSST released thousands of pages of exhibits from its ongoing investigation into the Sheriff. A draft report of the state?s investigation indicated that Giusto may have known more about the sexual abuse than he admitted publicly, and may have lied about that knowledge.

The DPSST is also investigating a second claim related to Sheriff Giusto?s involvement in obtaining a concealed handgun permit for Jim Jeddeloh, the former head of the Citizen Crime Commission, despite Jeddoloh having a DUI conviction. A third charge being examined by the DPSST concerns Giusto?s personal relationship with Jeddoloh?s wife.

The DPSST will submit its final report to the Police Policy Committee, which will meet in February 2008 and issue a ruling on the claims filed against Sheriff Giusto.

Meanwhile, in November 2007, County Chair Ted Wheeler called for the county to take control of the jail away from the Sheriff?s office. Wheeler said he would ask voters to transfer management of the county jails to the Board, and to change the Sheriff?s office from an elected to an appointed position when Giusto?s term ends in 2010.

Certainly, judging from the DA?s scathing report and the pending DPSST investigations, things definitely could be better if Sheriff Giusto were not running the county?s jails. Then again, they could hardly be worse.

Sources: The Oregonian; ?Independent Review of Policies and Procedures of Correctional Facilities Operated by the Multnomah County Sheriff?s Office? by the Multnomah County District Attorney?s Office (11-1-06). The report is available on PLN?s website.

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