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Oregon: Grand Jury Cites Problems at Multnomah County Jails

A Corrections Grand Jury report released on December 18, 2012 made recommendations to remedy problems in Multnomah County’s jail system, adding to suggestions the Grand Jury had previously made in 2011.

In its most recent report, the Grand Jury noted there was a 121% increase in the number of emergency prisoner releases from the county’s jails for the one-year period that ended in August 2012. The report recommended opening additional jail dorms to increase bed space. Three dorms at the Inverness Jail had been closed due to budget cuts over the past few years; the county’s jail system presently has 1,310 available beds.

The emergency releases occur when the jails are at 95% capacity, according to the Sheriff’s office, in order to make room for other detainees charged with more serious crimes. Over 900 prisoners were released early from Multnomah County jails in 2012 – eight times the number of emergency releases in 2010 and 2011 combined.

The Grand Jury report also cited the need to address staff vacancies; due to expected retirements among corrections employees, the Sheriff’s office needs to hire up to 85 new staff members before June 30, 2013, the Grand Jury found. “Recruitment practices will need to change dramatically in order to keep up with these retirement projections.”

In its previous report released in December 2011, the Corrections Grand Jury had recommended that the Multnomah County jail system expand suicide prevention training, house suicidal prisoners in dorms and hire more guards to reduce overtime costs.

The Grand Jury applauded the Sheriff’s office for implementing an 8-hour suicide prevention training program in 2011, following three jail suicides within a year. Even so, guards receive a “bare minimum” of 16-24 hours of suicide prevention training annually when 40 hours is recommended, according to the Grand Jury’s 2011 report. Jail officials responded that budget cuts and limited staffing precluded more extensive training.

The Grand Jury further recommended altering the practice of posting a guard, 24 hours a day, outside suicidal prisoners’ cells. “Evidence suggests that when inmates are housed together, suicide attempts drop, likely due to the fact that someone else is present,” the report observed. As such, the Grand Jury suggested that suicidal prisoners be housed in open dorms.

“That’s good for those who are not violent towards other people,” responded Chief Deputy Michael Shults. “But we also get very violent suicidal people.” He said the jail’s suicide watch committee would consider the recommendation.

Issues related to suicidal prisoners remain problematic, however. Jail prisoner Westley Wilson, 29, was left a quadriplegic following a May 10, 2012 suicide attempt when he jumped from the second floor at the Multnomah County Detention Center and landed on his head. Jail staff had not placed him on suicide watch despite indications he had mental health problems. Wilson filed a $12 million lawsuit against the county in February 2013, claiming jail employees failed to prevent him from harming himself.

Source: The Oregonian

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