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

Along with the tear gas, Barnett said inmates have been upset by federal troops’ use of explosives, which has had a particularly strong effect on mentally ill inmates housed on the fourth floor.

Police repair a fence surrounding the federal courthouse. (Wesley Lapointe)

By GARY THILL @Gary_Thill

Federal troops scattering Portland protesters from around the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse are also inadvertently deploying tear gas on the people jailed next door.

More than 60 inmates housed in the Multnomah County Detention Center were also tear gassed earlier this week when the gas seeped into the center's ventilation system, say two defense lawyers with clients in the building.

Lisa Maxfield, a partner a Pacific Northwest Law LLP, said inmates already cannot sleep because of the frequent nightly explosions as federal troops use flash-bang devices along with tear gas to quell protesters.

"It's just explosion after explosion," she said. "But it's really terrifying to have the gas actually make it into the jail tiers."

A statement by the Multnomah County sheriff's department said smoke from fires set by demonstrators and tear gas deployed by federal officers caused a "decrease in air quality" for both inmates and employees on the night of July 21. The detention center, which is located in the Multnomah County Justice Center, currently contains 269 adults, the sheriff's department said.

"Explosions from commercial grade fireworks, smoke, bright lights, lasers and tear gas continue to have significant and traumatizing impacts on the adults in custody and our staff," said Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese, who has been critical of federal troops' tactics.

The sheriff's department couldn't say how many inmates or employees were affected. But tear gas infiltrated the sixth, seventh and eighth floors of the detention center and affected more than 60 inmates, according to defense lawyers who serve as public defenders to those incarcerated. The center's eighth floor, which houses women, was the hardest hit, according to Maxfield.

On the morning of July 21, Maxfield said female inmates woke around 1 am to the sounds of another inmate screaming, "I can't breathe!" As the gas continued seeping into cells, inmates began to panic because no jail staff are present at night. "So there was no one to help them get to a safe place," Maxfield said. "It was pretty terrifying."

Another defense lawyer Russell Barnett III, a solo practitioner, said his male clients on the seventh floor reported the "smell of tear gas was very strong" and that one had to put his head under a pillow in an attempt to protect himself. Barnett said a group of civil lawyers are planning litigation in response to the incidents but didn't have details about the action.

The sheriff's department said "a few adults" made medical requests for treatment, "but no one was treated medically for exposure."

Along with the tear gas, Barnett said inmates have been upset by federal troops' use of explosives, which has had a particularly strong effect on the mentally ill inmates housed on the fourth floor. "Folks in the psych ward are going batshit because of all the noise," he said.

Barnett and other public defenders said most inmates at the detention center are people of color who can't make bail and are awaiting trial. "They should not be subject to nonjudicial punishment," Barnett said. "It's the equivalent of police officers chasing someone and when they catch them they beat them senseless. It's not up to the executive branch to mete out punishment prior to a conviction."

The sheriff's department's solution to the tear gas problem is to close the ventilation system's air dampers from 8 pm to 6 am. But that fix raises more alarms about COVID-19 risks.

"From my client's point of view, the jail's solution isn't much of a solution at all," Maxfield said. She noted that her client is in her 70s with multiple co-morbidities. "So recirculated air is pretty scary."

The sheriff's department said the recirculated air goes through a two-step filtration series before reentering the building. "To date, no adults have tested positive," the department said, noting a list of steps it is taking to reduce COVID-19 transmission risks, including enhanced cleaning and early release.

"We care deeply for the adults in custody and have a legal and moral obligation to protect them, as well as dozens of corrections deputies and county staff that provide rehabilitation, support and health services around the clock," Reese said. "The Justice Center is much more than a police station, it is a small city with hundreds of people inside. We ask everyone to do their part to help keep those in the building safe and healthy."

While Maxfield and Barnett were most angry with federal troops, they urged protesters to remember the inmates, too.

"I'm 100% behind these protests, but I would say keep your eye on the goal and don't put these people at greater risk than they already are," Maxfield said. "But the real problem here has to do with the federal government behaving like a bunch of jackbooted thugs."

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