Multnomah County Jail is located on the top floors of the downtown Justice Center.
Multnomah County Jail is located on the top floors of the downtown Justice Center. Doug Brown

It’s been six weeks since Multnomah County made it mandatory for all county jail staff to wear face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Yet jail employees, medical staff, public defenders, and incarcerated people say that the majority of corrections officers working at the county’s central jail—the Multnomah County Detention Center (MCDC)—have consistently ignored this rule. As recently as this week, people who’ve been booked in the poorly-ventilated MCDC were met by officers without masks who didn’t appear to be observing social distancing rules, even among their own coworkers.

“This has made the county detention centers an incubator for COVID-19 in our community,” said a MCDC employee, who requested anonymity out of fear of being retaliated against for speaking out.

Unlike the state prison system, Multnomah County’s jails have avoided a massive COVID-19 outbreak. But this employee and others fear that, without an intervention, this trend could change.

“I’m worried for the people being detained… who have no other ways of protecting themselves,” said the MCDC employee. “It’s only a matter of time before people start getting sick.”

MCDC, which is located in downtown Portland’s Justice Center, is where most people arrested in Multnomah County are initially booked after being charged with a crime. After people fill out paperwork and have their mugshot snapped on an upstairs floor in the MCDC, they’re usually taken to the jail’s basement to be booked and placed into holding cells. Multiple people who’ve been arrested after the county’s June 23 face mask order told the Mercury that it’s at this point in the process that officers stop following the rules.

These people, who’d all been arrested on charges related to the downtown protests, only spoke to the Mercury on the condition that their names wouldn’t be made public.

“Officers who were processing us on the upper floors were virtually all wearing masks,” said one person who was arrested on July 4. “But in the actual [holding cell area] I would say I saw maybe three or so out of 15 to 20 officers wearing masks, not including medical staff. When my transport brought me to the room in front of the holding area and I looked through the glass I was blown away. I would say the face-covering ratio was almost perfectly inverted from up top to downstairs.”

“This has made the county detention centers an incubator for COVID-19 in our community.”

Another person arrested on July 15 told the Mercury, “It was fairly obvious that once you’re in the basement, and the police have control over who sees what, they don’t care about wearing masks.”

“The person who frisked me did not wear a mask,” said another person, arrested on June 30. “I asked them to, and they laughed.”

Cory Elia, a journalist for KBOO who was arrested while filming a protest on June 30, described a similar indifference in a lawsuit filed against the City of Portland for his arrest. “Elia asked several times why the Sheriffs were not wearing masks,” the complaint, filed by attorney Beth Creighton, reads. According to the filing, Elia was placed in an isolation cell for his inquiry.

These anecdotes are supported by what public defenders have heard from clients and witnessed in person. Christine Breton, an attorney with Multnomah Defenders, Inc. said she was shocked after watching a MCDC video of her client’s booking process to see so few officers adhering to the face covering order.

“One person wore a mask to take their temperature... but all the other officers surrounding [my client] were not,” said Breton. “It seemed to defy the entire point.”

This problem isn’t contained to the booking process. MCDC is also home to a maximum security jail, where people who are unable to pay bail are held until their case is heard by a judge. It’s one of the county’s two adult correction centers. Unlike the holding cells, where people are held for a day or two right after an arrest, people can be held in the jail—located in the upper floors of the Justice Center—for months on end.

After the onset of COVID-19 in Multnomah County, the county sheriff's department worked to shrink the jail population by releasing inmates who had less that two weeks left on their sentence—and by urging police officers to issue citations to people charged with low-level crimes instead of taking them into custody. By May, the county had downsized its inmate population in its two adult jails by 30 percent.

Yet incarcerated people in MCDC remain vulnerable to COVID-19 in other ways. Two people currently being held in MCDC independently estimate that about half of corrections officers on these floors wear masks.

“The [officer] who frisked me did not wear a mask. I asked them to, and they laughed.”

Autumn Shreve, an attorney with Multnomah Defenders, Inc., said officers seem to operate with a “general lack of concern” for those being held in the detention center. Shreve points to the correction officers’ response to inmates being routinely incapacitated by tear gas seeping into the facility’s ventilation system from outside—where local and federal police have responded to nightly protests with clouds of gas.

“Last weekend, my client said that deputies turned off their emergency call buttons when they were being gassed, so they couldn’t call for help,” Shreve said.

Shreve also said it took until mid-July for her client, who has asthma, to be given a paper medical mask to wear inside MCDC. Another inmate at MCDC, who asked to remain anonymous, also told the Mercury that he hadn’t received a mask until the week of July 13. He’d been incarcerated in MCDC since before March.

Chris Liedle, a spokesperson for MCDC, said that everyone who has been booked in MCDC since April has been given a face mask to wear. But, he said, “It is possible an individual in custody may not have received a face covering until the week of July 13,” adding that staff “had to be mindful of PPE inventory.”

Liedle also stressed that officers are “reminded frequently” to comply with June 23 face mask order.

“Much like the public, we educate and encourage compliance,” he said. “If there is an issue or a complaint is filed, a supervisor will meet with the employee to review mask guidelines with them.”

According to records obtained by the Mercury, MCDC received three complaints about jail employees not complying with the face mask requirement between June 23 and July 13. The anonymous MCDC employee who spoke with the Mercury said this number is a poor representation of the issue. They believe many cases go unreported to avoid retaliation from coworkers.

For Multnomah County leadership, who are responsible for stemming the spread of COVID-19 in Oregon’s most densely populated region, news that officers employed by the county are openly shirking the mask rule came as an affront.

“I have zero tolerance for employees who are not adhering to the face mask requirement,” said Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury.

"They are not [in jail] under their own volition. It’s not like they chose to go to Target and can leave if they see people who aren’t following the mask rules."

Kafoury said the Mercury’s records request encouraged her to call Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese and demand stricter enforcement. Kafoury also met with county medical staff assigned to MCDC who expressed similar concerns with a “shocking” lack of compliance among officers.

She told the Mercury that incarcerated people don’t have the same luxuries as others to prevent contracting COVID-19.

“They are not [in jail] under their own volition,” Kafoury said. “It’s not like they chose to go to Target and can leave if they see people who aren’t following the mask rules. That’s why I expect even a higher level of compliance in these types of facilities.”

Asked why she believed officers were still flouting these rules, Kafoury speculated: “To be judicious, it might be uncomfortable for them to wear a face mask for 8 hours indoors. Unfortunately, not wearing a face mask has become a political statement. I put the blame for that squarely at the feet of the President.”

Kafoury said she’s committed to reaching total face mask compliance among officers working in the county jails.

Breton, with Multnomah Defenders, Inc., said she’s grateful that those who’ve recently been booked in MCDC for protest-related charges—many of whom have never been arrested— are speaking out about the conditions inside.

“I think some of my clients come to expect certain things... they expect to be treated as lesser than,” she said. “It’s helpful that others are calling attention to these serious issues. I’m hopeful.”