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Columbia County Sheriff's Office

A diabetic man being held in Oregon's Columbia County Jail (CCJ) has filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the county and its top law enforcement officials for "willfully and wantonly" dismissing the public health threat caused by COVID-19.

"Across the world, country, and Oregon, extraordinary and unprecedented measures affecting every aspect of life are being taken in the name of protecting people from this pandemic," reads the lawsuit, filed Tuesday evening by Portland attorneys Juan Chavez and David Sugerman. "Columbia County... cannot leave people in jails to suffer and die."

Michael Thompson, 44, was booked into CCJ in St. Helens on March 9 after being arrested on a series of assault and burglary charges. Faced with a $9,500 bail (which Thompson called "unreachable" in a text message to his attorney), Thompson has been forced to wait for his trial date behind bars, in what he and other inmates describe as a cramped, unsanitary facility.

According to the lawsuit, inmates at CCJ are not able to follow social distancing guidelines recommended by the federal and state government to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Instead, "inmates sleep in four-person cells on two sets of bunk beds" and "they rarely spend time at a distance further than six feet from each other."

Thompson and others that have spoken with his attorneys say the jail's public spaces and cells have not been sanitized, and inmates have limited access to cleaning and sanitary supplies. Several inmates who demonstrate symptoms of COVID-19 say they have not been given medical masks to prevent transmission, and inmates are allegedly required to pay to send a message to medical staff. The lawsuit also alleges that medical staff have not worn masks or gloves when interacting with inmates who show COVID-19 symptoms.

Thompsons' health issues—which include diabetes, asthma, and congestive heart failure—put him at high risk of contracting a severe case of COVID-19. His class-action lawsuit is intended to collectively protect all other CCJ inmates with diseases or health conditions that are considered high-risk by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The lawsuit, which specifically names Columbia County Sheriff Brian Pixley and Lieutenant Brooke McDowell as defendants, argues that CCJ inmates are being subject to "cruel and unusual punishment" due to the jail's "deliberate indifference to the serious risk COVID-19 poses to the medically vulnerable in their jail."

In response to their complaint, attorneys representing Thompson and the other CCJ inmates have requested the county mandate adequate spacing between inmates at CCJ, allow access to sanitization solutions, provide COVID-19 testing for inmates, and waive medical co-pays for inmates with COVID-19 symptoms.

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According to Thompson's lawyers, CCJ's inmate population is nearly at capacity, a factor that makes it challenging to follow social distancing rules. Other jails are taking preventative action to slow the spread of COVID-19 in tight quarters by releasing low-level offenders or people nearing the end of their sentences. On Tuesday, New Jersey released an estimated 1,000 people from its county jails to prevent the transmission of COVID-19. Later that day, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he would be releasing 300 non-violent inmates from Rikers Island jail, after the facility saw one case of COVID-19 explode into 52 presumed cases over the weekend.

In Oregon, Washington County has released at least 121 people to slow the spread of coronavirus, while Multnomah County says it's been releasing some people from its jails who are nearing the end of their sentence.

“It’s important to remember, as every Oregonian acts to prevent the spread of this disease, that an outbreak in a jail or prison is unlikely to stay there,” said Chavez, one of Thompson's attorneys, who works for the Oregon Justice Resource Center (OJRC). “Correctional officers, staff, and others entering and leaving these facilities all have the capacity to take COVID-19 out into the wider community. We are all only as safe as the most vulnerable among us.”