Multnomah County Jail Institutes New Strip Search Policy

Following an unprecedented string of deaths, WW has obtained new information about their circumstances and what the county is doing about them.

The Multnomah County Justice Center holds the county jail. (Brian Burk)

WW has obtained a copy of a new jail policy requiring that all inmates be strip searched and “body scanned” following booking.

The policy was outlined in a Aug. 1 memo sent by Capt. Brian Parks, commander of Multnomah County’s high-security downtown jail, to Chief Deputy Stephen Reardon. It went into effect yesterday and follows the sixth death in Multnomah County jails in three months, a toll unprecedented in recent history.

The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office has still not released the name of the most recent person to die in county custody. The office also declined to comment on the new policy.

Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson, however, confirmed the existence of the new policy in an interview with WW last night.

She said she’d just spoken to Sheriff Nicole Morrisey O’Donnell about it. “My question to the sheriff was, what are you doing immediately?” Pederson told WW.

The answer appears, at least in part, to be strip searches, a controversial tactic which has faced legal scrutiny in the past. Vega Pederson says body scanners alone haven’t proven effective in detecting the presence of fentanyl, the high-powered opioid that has permeated the streets of Portland. “They’re not really reliable because fentanyl is so impactful in such small quantities,” Vega Pederson says.

The deaths correspond to “the higher rates of illicit drugs, including fentanyl, and the higher rates of mental health issues,” seen by jail workers, Vega Pederson says.

Te county chair said she had also begun organizing daily meetings between jail health officials and corrections deputies to discuss ongoing staffing issues. When asked why these meetings weren’t happening earlier, she blamed “government silos.”

In response to a query from WW, the county also provided the causes of death of two inmates who died this year. Both were suicides.

Martin Franklin, 58, hanged himself with a bed sheet on June 16.

Donovan Wood, 26, placed a plastic trash bag over his head and died of asphyxia on May 2.

Investigations into the four other deaths this year have not been “finalized,” the county says.

The county also released the causes of the three inmate deaths in 2022:

Kenneth L. Hurley, 55, died from influenza complications on Nov. 19.

Stephen Murphy, 63, died last July from complications of liver cancer due to chronic hepatitis C and alcohol use.

Jess Rivas-Castillo, 36, died of a cocaine overdose last May.

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