County Jail Inmates File Federal Lawsuit Over Repeated Exposure to Tear Gas During Portland Protests

Attorneys for more than 300 inmates seek class action status and damages from Multnomah County and Sheriff Mike Reese.

"Its a beautiful struggle" says Tavis Greenwood, draped in an American flag, as he walks past a wall of tear gas while recording on the front lines. (Alex Wittwer)

A federal lawsuit filed today in U.S. District Court in Portland seeks compensation for inmates lodged in the Multnomah County Detention Center during weeks of protests that repeatedly exposed them to CS gas and other crowd control agents.

"Night after night, Multnomah County Jail deputies ignored cries for help, stopped responding to emergency calls, and left the men and women trapped in their cells to suffer," says the lawsuit, filed against Multnomah County and Sheriff Mike Reese on behalf at least 300 plaintiffs by Portland lawyer Joe Piucci and seven other lawyers.

The lawsuit alleges that after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd and extending through July, those held in the downtown jail, most of whom were awaiting trial, were exposed to gas and smoke on a nearly nightly basis.

"Whenever local law enforcement deployed tear gas in the vicinity of the Justice Center, the ventilation systems pumped the gas into the jail, and the detainees and inmates suffered," the lawsuit says.

Related: Federal Tear Gas Seeped Into the Jail Next Door, Choking and Terrifying the Inmates

Inmates on the seventh and eighth floors of the jail are held in cells with steel doors, windows that don't open, and little ventilation.

"On each night, the ventilation system of the jail drew in the toxic gas and pumped it throughout the jail, directly into the small concrete cells in which detainees and inmates lived and slept, and from which they could not escape," the lawsuit says.

One of the lead plaintiffs, Rashawd Duhart, who has since been released, said in a statement the experience was horrible.

"Guards would just do their normal rounds and keep walking. They wouldn't look at you. Just say there's nothing they could do and walk away," Duhart said. "I was surprised they didn't send us to the other jail. There was no explanation. Everyone felt they couldn't rely on the officers. We were on our own."

Rashawd Duhart

Although the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office, which operates and staffs the jail, did at times attempt to adjust the air intake system to minimize inmates' exposure to gas and smoke, the lawsuit says sheriff's deputies were not responsive to inmates' fears and discomfort.

"Jail deputies and supervisors alike treated detainees callously, inhumanely, and with deliberate indifference," the lawsuit says.

Piucci, the lead counsel for the inmates, is seeking class action status for his clients, unspecified damages, and new policies that would prevent inmates from being subjected to the gas, smoke, noise and disruption that characterized this summer's protests around the jail.

"The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment," Piucci said in a statement. "This case is a poster child of that kind of cruelty. These were human beings trapped in toxic gas-filled cells, night after night. This can't be who we are."

A spokesman for the sheriff's office said the office does not comment on pending litigation.

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