Multnomah County Inverness Jail Faces Federal Lawsuit Following COVID-19 Outbreak

Plaintiffs allege kitchen workers weren’t required to wear masks or gloves while preparing food.

Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese. (Motoya Nakamura / Multnomah County)

Fifteen current and former detainees of the Multnomah County Inverness Jail, all of whom say they've tested positive for COVID-19, filed a class action lawsuit in U.S. District Court on April 5, accusing jail staff and Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese of negligence for failing to mitigate the spread of the virus.

The lawsuit follows an outbreak at the jail that can be traced back to late 2020. As of Feb. 17, nearly 200 adults in custody at the Inverness Jail and about 30 staffers or members of their households tested positive for the virus, according to the county's website.

"The reason for the outbreak is not a mystery," the complaint says. "Defendants' failure to require, or enforce, social distancing, PPE, increased testing, or other precautions in jails and jails known to slow the spread of COVID-19 placed plaintiffs at imminent risk of contracting COVID-19."

The Multnomah County Sheriff's Office declined to comment on the lawsuit itself, citing pending litigation.

"However, since the onset of the pandemic, MCSO has worked side-by-side with corrections and public health officials to keep adults in custody safe and healthy, and has constantly adapted its response and updated its COVID-19 policies based on the best information available at the time," said spokesman Chris Liedle.

The Multnomah County Health Department determined that the Inverness Jail outbreak ended March 23. Since February, the county said, more than 220 adults in custody at the jail have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The plaintiffs allege that, at least until Feb. 5, the adults in custody were told they didn't need to wear a mask when preparing food in the kitchen for other inmates. The complaint further alleges that adults in custody, referred to as AICs, who worked in the kitchen learned Feb. 6 that their dorm was on medical lockdown because another inmate had tested positive for COVID-19.

"Despite the known risk," the complaint says, "the AICs working in the kitchen were required to continue preparing food for other AICs putting the entire jail population in danger."

The complaint alleges that jail staff failed to implement proper social distancing or conduct basic screenings for symptoms, and also required adults in custody to "continue to work or commingle" with others while awaiting test results.

The class is made up of 15 plaintiffs who all allege to have contracted COVID-19 while detained at the Inverness Jail.

One of the plaintiffs, Mark Wicklund, alleges he was transferred from the jail to a courthouse downtown on Jan. 13, where he was placed in a holding cell with approximately 10 quarantined adults in custody. Hours later, the complaint says, he and the others were transferred back to the Inverness Jail—where they were treated as "new" adults in custody.

"After about a half-hour, they realized Wicklund was not a new AIC, potentially exposed to [COVID], and should not have been with the other 10 AICs," the complaint alleges. "Wicklund was then moved to another holding cell with two other AICs that were not on quarantine, potentially exposing them to [COVID]. Instead of quarantining Wicklund, he was placed back into dorm 10 with healthy AICs, thereby exposing the AICs to [COVID]."

Andrew Pierson, another plaintiff, worked in the jail's kitchen where workers were allegedly told they were not required to wear masks or gloves while preparing food, and corrections staff didn't wear masks while there.

The lawsuit accuses the jail of negligence, as well as violating the plaintiffs' rights under the Eighth and 14th Amendments.

"As a result of the county's negligence, plaintiffs contracted COVID-19, suffered physical harm and severe physical and mental pain and suffering," the lawsuit says. "The county failed to meet their obligation to protect AICs from known, obvious and predictable threats to their health and safety."

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