In 2017, Multnomah County hired a psychiatrist to staff its downtown jail—a move applauded by disability rights advocates who said it would improve mental health care.
Five years later, that psychiatrist is gone, WW has learned. The position has disappeared from budget documents. The county won’t say why.
“It’s not a good situation,” says Dave Boyer, a managing attorney at Disability Rights Oregon, noting that the jails are the county’s largest mental health facility. It just “doesn’t make any sense,” he added.
The loss of health care leadership in Multnomah County jails has been a recent trend. WW reported earlier this month that all three of the facilities’ physicians quit earlier this year—in the middle of an unprecedented string of six inmate deaths.
Meanwhile, staff said, the jail struggled to find providers capable of prescribing psychiatric medications, a fraught situation that a psychiatrist would certainly have helped alleviate.
When asked why the psychiatrist position was eliminated, the county did not offer a clear answer. In a statement, the county said it now has psychiatric nurse practitioners available Monday through Friday—and a contract with an Oregon Health & Science University fellowship program to do rounds once a week on the acute mental health unit.
OHSU refused to make anyone available to discuss conditions at the jail. In a statement, a spokeswoman for the university said it followed all laws and directed further questions to the county.
Advocates have long raised warnings about inadequate health care at the county’s jails. In 2017, Disability Rights Oregon published a report outlining a host of problems, including overuse of solitary confinement, routine use of force against people with mental illness—and “woefully inadequate” health care.
The county took the findings seriously, and a follow-up report by DRO in 2018 detailed progress. The county had refurbished its clinics and hired more health staff, including a psychiatrist, which the nonprofit singled out specifically for having “made a meaningful difference in expanding access to psychiatric care in the jail.”
According to budget documents, the psychiatrist was part of a team that provided “monitoring and treatment for the many mentally ill clients booked into jail.”
That psychiatrist, Dr. Morgyn Beckman, was still in the position last year, according to a biography published on a conference website. But a budget document submitted that July no longer listed her position on the downtown detention center’s “mental health team.”
The county has admitted it has had difficulty hiring and retaining health care workers during the pandemic, citing the lack of telework opportunities in the jail.