A Public Defender Couldn’t Reach Her Client Inside the Dysfunctional Multnomah County Jail

A judge called it a “concerning problem” but declined to release the man.

DOCUMENT TYPE: Motion for Release

FILED ON: July 14, 2023

LOCATION: Multnomah County Circuit Court

FILED BY: Public defender Erin Suggs

In a scathing motion filed earlier this month, a public defender demanded her client be released from jail after officials denied her repeated requests to speak with him, citing behavioral issues.

Erin Suggs says she made eight failed attempts to call or visit her 45-year-old client, a homeless man who was caught sneaking into an empty apartment during a snowstorm and later arrested after fleeing a traffic stop. Citing “ongoing violations of his constitutional rights to assistance of counsel,” Suggs demanded his immediate release.

In her motion, Suggs listed her failed efforts over two weeks to reach her client. At one point, she overheard a corrections deputy say “he did not appreciate” how her client had been acting, and denied her request.

Later, on July 14, Suggs took a doctor to the jail to perform a mental health evaluation. They were denied access, without explanation, the motion alleges.

“[The jail] does not have the authority to determine which incarcerated people deserve access to their attorneys based on individual staff members’ subjective assessments of their behavior,” Suggs wrote, and demanded his release given her inability to speak to her client.

The motion filed this month offers a window into increasingly precarious conditions within a county jail system where staff are scarce and five inmates have died this year.

A jail spokesman, Deputy John Plock, said it had already addressed some public defenders’ concerns by instituting a procedure to refer requests to supervisors. It’s unclear whether Suggs made use of it. Plock also noted that attorneys’ difficulties in reaching clients are generally “not due to staffing, but simply to accommodate routine jail operations” like shift changes or meal times.

Still, Suggs’ motion comes as Multnomah County jails face multiple crises, including a string of recent inmate deaths and staffing shortages stretching back years. In 2021, an independent review panel warned that “the lack of adequate staffing has led to a vicious cycle of corrections staff burnout.” The five deaths inside the jails in 2023 appear to be an all-time record for a full year, let alone seven months.

Meanwhile, public defenders hardly have time to waste calling the jail day after day fruitlessly attempting to contact clients. They say they’re already stretched too thin, and are refusing at times to accept new clients amid rising caseloads.

Circuit Judge Kelly Skye weighed the motion in a hearing last week. “This does present a concerning problem,” Skye said, and directed her staff to resolve it.

But she denied Suggs’ request, noting that her client is also facing charges of shoplifting at a JCPenney in Clackamas County and, if released, would simply be transferred to jail there.

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