Entry sign at the Inverness Jail, one of Multnomah Countys two jail facilities.
Entry sign at the Inverness Jail, one of Multnomah County's two jail facilities. Multnomah County

As the coronavirus spreads across Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown has ordered all critical facilities that remain open to practice strict social distancing guidelines—allowing individuals to have at least six feet of space between each other. Those rules have proven too difficult to follow, however, in the cramped quarters of county jails.

“What we’ve heard from public health experts, is that it’s not an ‘If,’ it’s a ‘When’ in terms of COVID-19 spreading through jails and prisons,” said Bobbin Singh, director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center (OJRC), who’s been speaking with criminal justice officials and advocates across the state. “Jails are unable to practice the measures recommended by the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. That’s a huge challenge.”

In Multnomah County, law enforcement has stopped admitting people to jail charged on misdemeanor offenses, an action that’s halved the number of jail bookings over the course of a week. It’s also prompted jail officials to bar in-person visits at Multnomah County jails. As of Friday, the jails were at 76 percent total capacity, and the sheriff's office had begun slowly releasing inmates with less than two weeks left on their sentences in an effort to allow for social distancing. Jail intake staff have also been screening all new inmates for COVID-19 symptoms, and placing them in single cells to create more space between individuals. The jail has yet to report a case of COVID-19.

And yet, with deputies, guards, and other jail employees still passing freely between the secure facility and the outside world where COVID-19 can be easily transmitted, criminal justice advocates, public defenders, and public health experts fear the current actions may not be enough.

“If we don’t start greatly reducing jail intakes and shrinking the size of the jail population, we’ll create incubators for a virus that could potentially impact all of us,” said Kelly Simon, an ACLU of Oregon attorney. “Now’s not the time to be political; now’s the time to be making decisions based on public health. And reducing jail populations is consistent with science and public health.”

Across the country, cases of COVID-19 have already begun popping up in detention centers—like New York City’s Rikers Island Jail and Chicago’s Cook County Jail—and spreading, prompting elected officials across the US to start authorizing the release of inmates who are nearing the end of their sentence, are charged with low-level crimes, or have health conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. On Tuesday, New Jersey will begin releasing as many as 1,000 inmates from its county jails, the largest release seen in the US due to the coronavirus.

In the Portland metro region, there are two people who have the authority to let people out of jail: Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese and Multnomah County Judge Cheryl Albrecht, who serves as the court’s chief criminal judge.

On Friday, a clerk for Albrecht confirmed that she was in continuous conversations about the jail population and, in an email to the Mercury, Reese said his office is “using a variety of options” like early release for inmates nearing the end of their sentence and pretrial release for people who’ve not yet been convicted of a crime. Reese did not indicate how many inmates had been released in the wake of the coronavirus.

At the state level, Brown has the authority to grant clemency to any incarcerated Oregonian. In a Monday press call, Brown said it’s not something she’s considered. But, she added, “I suspect it may be one of the tools we’ll keep on the table.”

Following the call, Liz Merah, a spokesperson for Brown’s office, confirmed in an email to the Mercury that there is “no concerted plan to consider clemency in response to COVID-19.”

Criminal justice advocates in Oregon don’t expect this to be Brown’s top priority. But they want her and other elected officials to feel prepared to make the call when it's needed.

“It’s understandable that right now, the Governor and her staff are really busy… their capacity to think about this is very limited,” said OJRC’s Singh. “We want to be there to say, ‘We know you can't think about this right now, so please lean on us.’”

Last week, the OJRC and ACLU of Oregon joined several other civil rights organizations in sending detailed recommendations to local and state leaders on how to take action to reduce the likelihood of the coronavirus running rampant through county jails and state prisons. They include recommendations around staff and inmate hygiene, the elimination of co-pays for medical checkups, and transparency between administration and the public, While the group also endorses inmate release, it also addresses the reality that the majority of Oregon inmates will probably remain incarcerated throughout this crisis.

“We have to be asking, ‘How can we create an environment that mitigates the harm that's going to happen within this community?’” Singh said.

Singh is worried that—just like with the non-incarcerated population—any additional isolation will only worsen inmates' mental and physical health.

“We're hearing about the limitations our country is facing right now by staying at home, and how difficult and stressful that is for people,” said Singh. “For folks who are already incarcerated, those tools that help them cope with anxiety and stress are even more critical.”

Last week, Multnomah County cancelled all of their jail programs to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.

He said he believes the “biggest danger” is for institutions to cut access to internal programs that have become vital for incarcerated people, like parenting classes, substance abuse support meetings, anger management programs, mindfulness classes, and other educational courses.

“It’s incredibly important right now for folks to stay focused and hopeful and pro-socially engaged,” said Singh. “You remove that in a jail, and it can very quickly devolve into a very terrible situation.”

Some are looking further upstream to prevent COVID-19 transmission in jails. Chris O’Connor, a public defender with Multnomah Defenders, Inc, said he’s been heartened to see Multnomah County prosecutors and judges shortening or erasing jail sentences for people charged with low-level crimes and probation violations. But he’s still concerned that people who cannot afford bail may be forced to wait in jail, with a higher likelihood of contracting the coronavirus, while those who can pay are able to protect themselves from the virus at home.

“People are still stuck in custody just because they’re not wealthy,” O’Connor said. “I think that’s creating the most consternation and concern for [public defenders] right now.”

O’Connor’s also worried about the growing buildup of cases that have been put on hold until the COVID-19 threat passes. While many of these delays make sense to retain the constitutional rights of people faced with incarceration, O’Connor’s seen many low-level cases that could be resolved with a quick decision from a judge instead being kicked down the road for a future hearing.

“There’s going to be a giant wall of stuff to address whenever this ends, either way,” he said. “But courts have the opportunity to lessen that burden right now.”

Simon, the ACLU attorney, is hopeful that Oregon law enforcement leaders and elected officials will heed the urgent recommendations made by state civil rights experts. But she’s also hopeful for the more long-term conversations around criminal justice that may come from this crisis.

“When things are normal, it's easy for us to throw away those who’ve been caught up in the justice system. But what we do to the least of us impacts all of us,” said Simon. “That’s true in a public health emergency, but that’s also true every day. People don't disappear when they enter prisons and jails. This crisis is reminding us that there are actual people inside those facilities and that they need to be treated humanely.”