Sheriff Responds to Largest Number of Multnomah County Jail Deaths in More Than a Decade

“Jails are a microcosm of society, reflecting trends we see and feel across the region and country,” Sheriff Nicole Morrisey O’Donnell says.

The first death in Multnomah County jails this year was on May 2. There have been four more since.

WW has obtained records from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission that show, in conjunction with records obtained by Reuters, just how unprecedented these past three months have been.

It’s been a long time, if ever, that Multnomah County jails saw more deaths in one year than have been recorded in the first seven months of 2023. In two years—2010 and 2015—four adults in custody died in Multnomah County jails.

The county medical examiner has yet to confirm the causes of the deaths, although the sheriff’s office has said 31-year-old George Allen Walker died due to “natural causes” and a prosecutor said 26-year-old Donovan Anthony Wood committed suicide. According to 911 call records obtained by WW, the death of 53-year-old Kashi Abram Harmon “may have been a suicide attempt,” although jail staff was unsure.

On Friday, following the announcement of the death of 31-year-old Josiah G. Pierce at Inverness Jail in Northeast Portland, Sheriff Nicole Morrisey O’Donnell issued a statement acknowledging the “profound impact” of the deaths on their families, crime victims, inmates and staff.

“Jails are a microcosm of society, reflecting trends we see and feel across the region and country,” she said, pointing to “a lack of preventative health care access prior to incarceration, the presence of chronic illnesses, substance abuse issues, mental illnesses, and other socio-economic factors.”

One of those factors: the rise of the potent opioid fentanyl. In a briefing of county commissioners last month, a corrections health supervisor, Ederlinda Ortiz, said inmates were experiencing such long and intense drug withdrawals that they were too sick to leave after being released. Her team provides them with Gatorade, clothes, shoes and blankets as they suffer from withdrawal steps from the jailhouse doors.

“The hard truth is that too often there is nowhere for people to go,” Ortez said. “We cannot compete with fentanyl.”

It is unclear whether any of the deaths were drug related. “I am committed to identifying and implementing solutions to prevent deaths in our custody,” Sheriff O’Donnell said in her Friday statement.

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