Sheriffs Inspect Each Other’s Jails. They Found Nothing Amiss in Portland.

The Multnomah County Detention Center got top scores amid a rising death toll.

Mult Co Jail default (Brian Burk)

Last week, WW reported on an eye-opening claim in an Oregon State Police report: During 2019, a violent gang was effectively running two units on the fifth floor of the Multnomah County Detention Center.

And yet when Lt. Kevin Thies, a Clackamas County cop, visited the same jail that October to inspect the facility, he declared that absolutely nothing was wrong. “I am very pleased to report that we found your facility to be operating well within the guidelines of the Oregon Jail Standards,” he wrote to Mike Reese, Multnomah County’s sheriff at the time.

Four years later, record numbers of inmates were dying at the facility. Amid the drug overdoses, suicides, and reports of substandard medical care, Lt. Thies came back.

Again, the jail earned a perfect score. “I am pleased to report that we found the facility to be operating well within the guidelines of the Oregon Jail Standards,” he wrote.

Multnomah County’s jails face a reckoning. Since 2022, 10 inmates have died in county custody, an unprecedented death toll stemming from systemic problems at the lockups. Now, amid allegations that a violent gang was allowed to effectively run several units of the downtown maximum security jail with the help of a half-dozen deputies (“What Happened in Hoover Jail,” WW, March 6), scrutiny is turning to the jail’s oversight—or lack thereof.

Oregon has a unique system for watchdogging county jails. Fourteen standards, from having “sufficient staff” to a ban on corporal punishment, are enshrined in state law. If those standards aren’t met, the state attorney general can intervene.

But the state doesn’t do the monitoring itself. In 2015, it ceded that authority to the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association.

In other words, the people who run the state’s jails—county sheriffs and their deputies—are now policing each other. And, according to them, the Multnomah County Detention Center deserves top scores.

WW presented this finding to Michele Deitch, a professor at the University of Texas who’s studied jail oversight for over two decades. She says it’s bad across the board, and Oregon is no exception.

But, unlike Oregon, states like Texas and New York have created independent jail oversight agencies. The delegation of monitoring to county sheriffs means Oregon’s inspections are “not sufficiently arm’s length,” Deitch says.

A spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Corrections, which as of this year is now run by Reese, the former Multnomah County sheriff, says its partnership with the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association “has been successful” and notes that the scope of its inspections are limited “to the infrastructure and existence of critical policies for the operation of detention facilities.”

To be sure, it’s no guarantee that outside eyes would have seen much more. The county also conducts several annual inspections of the jail. A 2019 report by a randomly selected group of grand jurors made no mention of assaults or violence. (Perhaps not surprising, since deputies choose which inmates jurors talk to and then sit in on the interviews.) County commissioners were also required to visit the jail and report whether it appears “any provisions of law have been violated or neglected” to the district attorney. That year, the only report from that inspection, county officials say, was a newsletter from then-Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. She called the experience “enlightening” and the jail “bleak” while praising efforts by county officials to reduce incarceration.

State officials have repeatedly called for change in the state’s oversight system. Facing a rising death toll in county jails, lawmakers ordered the state Criminal Justice Commission to look into the problem of jail oversight. The CJC came back in 2020 with a slew of recommendations, including hiring “objective, non-jail” inspectors.

That, recent inspection reports show, hasn’t happened. (The sheriffs’ association didn’t return WW’s calls.)

Then, in 2022, the CJC went further, recommending that the state create an “independent jail commission” with “primary inspection authority.” But a bill that would have created such a commission died in the Legislature the following year.

State Rep. Pam Marsh (D-Jackson County), who has led these reform efforts, says getting money to create a new oversight body amid opposition from the sheriffs’ association presented a “political challenge.”

Still, she says, the problems inside Multnomah County’s jails only prove the need for additional reforms: “Clearly, we need to come back to those recommendations and look at them again.”

WW compared reports from outside groups on conditions at the Multnomah County Detention Center with findings from the county sheriffs’ deputies. (We left out county inspections by laypeople.) Here’s how they stack up:

Who: Disability Rights Oregon

  • Period under review: 2016
  • Conclusion: Problems “run deep.”
  • What it found: Leaders had failed “to rein in staff who repeatedly assault detainees.”

Who: Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association

  • Period under review: 2017 to 2019
  • Conclusion: Full compliance with 100% of 312 applicable standards.
  • What it found: “I am very pleased to report that we found your facility to be operating well within the guidelines of the Oregon Jail Standards,” Clackamas County Lt. Kevin Thies told Sheriff Mike Reese.

Who: Oregon State Police

  • Period under review: 2018 to 2020
  • Conclusion: Evidence points to “a consistent pattern of misconduct by several officers.”
  • What they found: Members of the Hoover gang had effectively run several units of the jail, according to inmates and gang members interviewed by police. Investigators identified 14 assaults allegedly facilitated by corrections deputies.

Who: Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association

  • Period under review: 2019 to 2021
  • Conclusion: Full compliance with 100% of 319 standards.
  • What it found: “The tour that we received on Nov. 4, 2021, from your deputies and command staff was very thorough. The team posed numerous questions to staff and inmates. The answers received reflected very well on your jail,” Sgt. Keith Hunnemuller of the Benton County Sheriff’s Office told Sheriff Reese.

Who: Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association

  • Period under review: 2021 to 2023
  • Conclusion: Full compliance with 307 of 309 applicable standards.
  • What it found: “I am pleased to report that we found the facility to be operating well within the guidelines of the Oregon Jail Standards,” Lt. Thies told Sheriff Nicole Morrisey O’Donnell. “The only noncompliant standard involved the medical department not having a process in place for a mandatory 12-month medical review.”

Who: National Institute of Corrections

  • Period under review: 2023
  • Conclusion: Problems, including concerns over medical care and deputy oversight, have “the potential to cripple your system.”
  • What it found: After six inmates died in less than a year in Multnomah County jails, Sheriff O’Donnell called for federal help. “I have found what I believe to be serious health care and operations issues in the Multnomah jail system,” wrote Margaret E. Severson, a former University of Kansas School of Social Welfare professor now consultant for the NIC.

Correction: Any earlier version of this article misstated the legal requirement of the county commission. The commission is required to report any apparent violation or neglect of the law while inspecting jails.

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