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September 6th, 2006 Ian Demsky | News Stories
 

Going Down

A problem-plagued elevator tells how Multnomah County's courthouse has declined.

     
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IMAGE: CHAD CROWE
When the Multnomah County Courthouse's single secure elevator breaks down—which happens maybe once a month—the biggest problem is the chain, according to Sgt. Paul Prigge, a court security supervisor.

"The chain" is corrections slang for the parade of 30 to 60 jail inmates who arrive each morning at the downtown courthouse for arraignments, trials, sentencing and other judicial appearances. The accused and convicted show up in big green armored trucks. Then they're whisked into the courthouse basement though an entrance on the Southwest 5th Avenue sidewalk. From there, they go to a holding area on the seventh floor in groups of nine, usually with a deputy standing guard from the other side of a metal grille inside the elevator car. At the end of the day, they leave the same way.

At least, that's what's supposed to happen.

But when Elevator No. 5 (as it's known to building maintenance staff) isn't working, county sheriff's deputies must shut down much of the courthouse's main floor to march inmates up to the courthouse jail.

More than just a safety risk for court employees and visitors and a quirky slice of crime and punishment for the rest of us, Elevator No. 5 is a piquant symbol of the greater saga of the Multnomah County Courthouse. The stolid building, built in 1914, is the hub of the county's overburdened criminal-justice system. Eleven years ago, a report called it "functionally and operationally obsolete." The county has known for at least 15 years that even a moderate earthquake could reduce it to rubble. (Bad news indeed for the estimated 3,000 citizens who pass through its metal detectors on an average day.) A recent report noted that during a fire, stairwell evacuation routes are likely to fill with smoke.

But a new courthouse would cost the strapped county about $150 million, and a replacement appears no closer than 10 years away. So for the foreseeable future, the people who run one of Portland's most important buildings must deal with things like Elevator No. 5—a reminder, both dangerous and annoying, of the courthouse's decrepit condition.

When the elevator was last modernized, The Brady Bunch was still in its original run and Nixon sat in the White House. (It also was the year—1974—both were canceled.)

Today, when the elevator fails, "We have to close down the corridor and tell court staff to stay in their offices," says Chief Deputy Ron Bishop, who until recently headed security operations at the 92-year-old courthouse.

After securing the hallways and entrances, deputies lead the detainees in through a staff entrance and down a hallway past the jury room, into the lobby and, group by group, onto one of the four public elevators, which must be commandeered.

It's unclear exactly how much time the elevator spends out of service. But maintenance records for the elevator show eight service calls this year, with notations like: "Several complaints of people falling down." "Person trapped in elev #5 at 5th flr." "Dropped 1 whole floor in down direction. Passengers fell." "Stopped suddenly. Deputy fell down inside."

Bishop says Sheriff Bernie Giusto once asked him what his No. 1 need was. "I said, 'An elevator we can depend on,'" Bishop recalls.

Elevator No. 5's problems also open the door to a sticky legal issue. Accused criminals are presumed innocent until proven guilty. The detours caused by Elevator No. 5 make it possible that jurors could see suspects in shackles and jail uniforms—a potentially prejudicial factor that could lead to costly mistrials.

The finicky jail elevator is only one of a host of security and structural problems that have plagued the courthouse for years. For example, when inmates are individually escorted from the courthouse's cells to proceedings on various floors, the elevator opens not on secure corridors you'd find in more modern facilities but on concourses used by everyone.

"The hallways are always filled with victims, children, judges, lawyers, victims' families and jurors," says presiding Circuit Court Judge Dale Koch.

To enumerate other specific ways in which the courthouse itself makes Prigge's and the other deputies' jobs more dangerous would only expose them to greater risk.

"In the worst way, we need a new building," Koch says.

County facilities director Doug Butler says there's no specific plan about what to do about Elevator No. 5, other than to keep it in the best working order possible. There's not ready money to simply replace it. Meantime, the building's total maintenance costs increased nearly 70 percent, from $125,000 in 2003 to $211,000 in 2005. And replacing an elevator isn't exactly outpatient surgery.

"It's a challenging situation," Butler says. "The plan is that we need to replace this building. But until then, we've got to keep supporting it."

 
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