Jason Sturgill

For more than two weeks this month, the jail at the Multnomah County Justice Center was nearly inaccessible to defense attorneys looking to meet with clients, psychologists trying to evaluate the mental competency of the newly arrested, and family and friends hoping to visit locked-up loved ones. 

The visitors’ elevator at the jail broke down around September 6, and two others went down a week later—each due to unrelated pipe bursts. There are no publicly accessible stairs to the Multnomah County Detention Center, one of the county’s two jails, which sits on floors four through eight of the massive downtown building. 

“It was the perfect storm,” says Multnomah County Facilities Manager Mark Gustafson, who oversees maintenance of the Justice Center. “We had three floods in the matter of two weeks—floods that were totally unassociated with each other. I look like the bad guy here as the facility manager, which I’ve been for 29 years. It really has been bad luck.” 

Sergeant Cathy Gorton, president of Multnomah County Corrections Deputy Association, says she was escorting two attorneys out following jail visits when she heard what sounded like a waterfall. It was the first and most detrimental of the three incidents. A pipe burst on the 16th floor, sending water down the shaft to the detention center’s lone public elevator and flooding a property room in the basement, 18 floors below. 

“Electronics and water don’t mix very well,” Gustafson says, “and when the equipment got wet it just stopped working.” 

From the September 6 deluge until the elevator was finally operable again last Friday, numerous urgent jail functions were put on hold—potentially keeping defendants locked up longer than necessary.

“In-person visits to the detention center are either impossible or extremely onerous to do,” one public defender told the Mercury, an account backed up by other attorneys, psychologists, and the county’s chief criminal judge. Some attorneys have been able to use the staff elevators, escorted by corrections deputies, but it’s been difficult and inconvenient, they say.

“We were already really, really limited to when we can call and visit clients,” the public defender said, requesting not to be named for fear of perception among colleagues. “When you’re dealing with misdemeanor clients, a lot of the people who are in jail are only still in jail because you haven’t gotten them to court yet. If you can’t get ahold of them to figure out if they want to take a plea, or if they have an argument about how we can get them released, they just sit there until we figure that out.” 

Forensic psychologists—doctors who help determine if a defendant is mentally fit to stand trial or if they should go to a mental health facility—have also been kept away.

“For the first week or so, none of us could go in to see anybody,” one psychologist told the Mercury last week, asking not to be named for fear of burning bridges with jail staff. “Finally, we figured out we could see people on the third floor, but those rooms are usually booked, or there’s a long wait to see somebody.” 

Even when they could meet with defendants, the psychologist explained they couldn’t actually have in-contact visits. The defendants and psychologists instead had to communicate through a window via phone, thwarting the ability to do necessary testing. 

“If you’re trying to figure out if a person has intellectual disabilities, low intellectual function, low IQ, you can’t do that kind of testing if you’re separated by glass,” the psychologist said. Those tests require subjects to physically touch materials and use a pencil and paper, which cannot be done in “no-contact” rooms. “It’s a problem. It slowed down our ability to quickly evaluate defendants who have mental health problems and, because of that, it slows down the court process, impacting people with mental health problems to a greater extent than it impacts defendants who do not have mental health problems.” 

Edward Jones, the chief criminal judge in Multnomah County , met with Sheriff Mike Reese and Gustafson last Thursday, a day before the elevator was finally fixed. 

“Jail elevators are not off-the-shelf problems, parts can be hard to find,” Jones told the Mercury in an email. “It has created problems for lawyers trying to meet with their clients (some things can’t be done on the phone) and for psychologists and other experts who need to sit down with a defendant.... Bottom line: some things will be slower, and people will have to work harder, but we will get the cases resolved.” 

The detentions center’s issues go beyond the one elevator. Two staff-only elevators went down after separate water leaks from faulty pipes on the 13th floor last week, Gustafson said. One of them trapped two corrections deputies and an inmate inside until Portland Fire & Rescue could spring them free. 

Are three elevator-closing floods indicative of a larger complication at the Justice Center? “The problem is that it’s a 37-year-old high-rise building,” Gustafson said. “The whole issue with elevators is electronics, just like computers. We did an upgrade in 2007—so here we are 10 years later, and they’re obsolete.”

As of Friday, all elevators in the building are working. When the next faulty pipe bursts is anyone’s guess.

“In regards to elevators,” says the forensic psychologist, “all I can say is they really have their ups and downs.” `