The Multnomah County jail represent the largest mental health treatment facility in the city—it's got 122 beds set aside for inmates experiencing mental illness. That's about 50 percent more beds than the Unity Center, Legacy's new facility dedicated to treating mental illness.
But a 2017 report written by Disability Rights Oregon found conditions in the jail were dismal for inmates experiencing some form of mental illness, whom DRO says are at least one-third and perhaps as many as 80 percent of the 35,000 people who cycle through the county's jails each year.
Today, DRO released an update on conditions. Its findings: Things are a markedly better than a year ago, but there's still a lot of room for improvement.
In the report she wrote last year, DRO's Sarah Radcliffe found that mentally ill inmates got very little time outside their cells and some went for weeks at a time without leaving.
"At the time of DRO's original report in 2017, people confined on mental health units were theoretically allotted between 15 minutes and two hours per day out of their cells," the report says. "Now, people on these units are offered two daily opportunities to leave their cells for a minimum of two to four hours per day or 14 to 28 hours per week."
In the past, DRO found, corrections deputies were poorly trained, sometimes abusive and lacked supervison. Now, under new Sheriff Mike Reese, a sergeant and a deputy are specifically assigned to mental health units. Inmates in need of treatment are taken to a refurbished infirmary, rather than simply talked to through cell doors.
*"Approximately one year ago, Corrections Health hired a full time psychiatrist dedicated to patients at MCDC," the report adds. "The feedback we have received indicates that this position has made a meaningful difference in expanding access to psychiatric care in the jail."
Jail staff now provide a brief mental health screening for each new inmate and in the past year, deputies have received training on how to interact more effectively and humanely with inmates experiencing mental illness.
DRO found that the use of restraints—forcibly strapping an inmate to a specially designed chair—dropped by half and the use of force and need for disciplinary hearings and sanctions also dropped significantly.
One area in which the report is less positive is deputies' use of force against inmates.
Last year, DRO identified two unnamed deputies as allegedly engaging in unusual number of incidents. Those deputies were removed from contact with inmates and placed on a plan of assistance. The jails lack a video surveillance system adequate to assess whether deputies are abusing inmates and in the past, officials have done a poor job of collecting data regarding use of force incidents. A new system to track use of force is scheduled to go live July 1 and a new, $4 million video surveillance system is also set for installation this summer.
Athough generally complimentary, the report found plenty of other areas that need improvement: inmates on suicide watch are deprived of basic comforts and subjected to unduly harsh conditions ; inmates have too little access to community mental health resources; and, a new effort aimed at diverting people in crisis to a walk-in mental health clinic rather than jailing them for disorderly conduct is so far unsuccessful.
"Our jail shows us a microcosm of what's not working in our community," Radcliffe's report concludes. "Many people in jail are facing low-level, behavioral health related charges—situations that likely would have been preventable with better community supports."