Update, Feb. 10:
More details from the Dorm 11 incident have emerged, this time coming straight from people who were inside the room. An Inverness Jail inmate who was in Dorm 11 Sunday evening explained how the fracas began in a phone call with Rowan Maher, a legal assistant with Metropolitan Public Defender (MPD). His observations are supported by another Dorm 11 inmate, whose spouse shared his perspective with the Mercury over email.
Both inmates have requested anonymity out of fear of retribution. The inmate who spoke with Maher, who we’ll identify as John, said that the conflict began Saturday, when corrections officers removed an inmate from Dorm 11 and put the dorm into “medical lockdown”—a step the jail makes when it believes a dorm has been exposed to COVID-19. On Sunday, several men in Dorm 11 had asked corrections officers why their dorm had been placed under lockdown, and requested COVID-19 tests for the dorm. John told Maher that officers ignored their requests, which frustrated the inmates. On Sunday evening, after one inmate "passively" asked officers to speak with a sergeant about receiving a test, an officer threatened to send him to solitary confinement for not being quiet. When the man continued to request a test, John said two officers approached the man’s bed, threw him on the ground, and handcuffed him. Then, an officer used a taser on the man’s lower back.
Maher said John told her, “I've never heard a man scream like that… I was scared for him.”
John and others in the dorm yelled at the officer to stop tasing the man, but he did not. That’s when inmates reportedly began throwing chairs at the cluster of officers who had surrounded the man on the ground. John told Maher that, when people began throwing chairs, officers started pepper spraying everyone in the dorm, regardless of whether or not they were involved in the protest.
When officers took the handcuffed man out of the dorm, inmates used chairs to barricade the doors behind them, effectively shutting officers out of their office. John told Maher that the entire incident was unplanned, and was only in response to how officers treated their friend.
When the CERT team entered the dorm around 2:30 am Monday, the Dorm 11 inmates were handcuffed and moved into small holding cells in groups of seven. John told Maher he was shocked by how this entire incident undermined the jail’s COVID-19 rules .
“They're threatening our lives... this is not a safe environment,” John told Maher.
Original story, Feb. 8:
On Sunday evening, tensions boiled over among inmates at Northeast Portland's Inverness Jail.
After watching a COVID-19 outbreak infect nearly one hundred inmates over the course of a week, a flare-up that paused court hearings and forced many dorms into lockdown, the residents of Dorm 11 responded with protest when a corrections officer reprimanded one of their fellow inmates. It's not clear what exact incident sparked the 11 pm uprising, but by midnight, the dorm of 50 men had successfully forced all corrections officers out of Dorm 11.
Corrections staff responded by using a taser and shooting pepper spray into the crowded dorm, according to Chris Liedle with the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office (MCSO), which oversees the county's jails. But it wasn't enough to subdue the crowd. Liedle said deputies with the Correction Emergency Response Team (CERT)—the jail's equivalent of a SWAT team—were called to respond. By 3 am, the CERT deputies had forcibly restrained and removed every inmate.
On Monday morning, Liedle said Dorm 11 residents were being held in individual holding cells.
Rowan Maher, a legal assistant with Metropolitan Public Defender (MPD), got a call this morning from one of MPD's clients who is detained in one of the eight dorms reserved for inmates who've tested positive for COVID-19. Her client's dorm shares a wall and a doorway with Dorm 11. The client told Maher he stayed awake all night as deputies used his dorm as a staging ground to access Dorm 11.
"The officers put a cloth under their shared door to keep the [pepper spray] from seeping in," Maher said.
Maher said Dorm 11 is one of the Inverness dorms that hasn't been infected with COVID-19, but she worries that its residents are still vulnerable to catching the virus, due to their proximity and shared air flow with infected dorms.
"I'm alarmed that they're using respiratory irritants on people who may have been exposed to COVID-19," said Maher. "Pepper spray causes people to cough and sneeze, potentially exacerbating the outbreak."
Others have raised concern that Inverness' corrections officers—who've been reluctant to follow mask requirements—move frequently between the jail's dorms, potentially spreading the virus. Inmates with COVID-19 have told Maher and others at MPD that their requests for sweaters, clean masks, and access to over-the-counter pain medication have been ignored or greatly delayed by officers at Inverness. Since January 15, 107 Inverness inmates have tested positive for COVID-19.
The incident comes days after Multnomah County clinicians began offering a limited number of COVID-19 vaccines to Inverness inmates. As of February 3, at least 108 of the estimated 512 adults in custody at Inverness had been vaccinated.