A dormitory inside Multnomah County's Inverness Jail
A dormitory inside Multnomah County's Inverness Jail Multnomah County Sheriff's Office

Life inside Multnomah County Jail facilities is disproportionately worse for people who are Black or have a mental illness, according to an audit released Wednesday. The investigation, conducted by the Multnomah County Auditor's Office, found that Black inmates and people with a mental illness are more likely to encounter discipline—especially in the form of isolation—and use of force than their peers behind bars.

The team of auditors based the audit on data collected between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2021.

The audit was, in part, prompted by a 2017 report by Disability Rights Oregon, which found poor conditions for people with mental health conditions held in Multnomah County Jail facilities.

The county audit shows that many of the problems identified by Disability Rights Oregon still remain.

"Mental health and corrections experts have found that it is common for people with mental health conditions to find it very difficult to follow strict rules and to be likely to break rules when stressed," the audit reads. "During the three-year period we reviewed, we found that when Sheriff’s staff determined these individuals had broken rules, they were then frequently placed in isolation. This has been shown to be harmful even for people without mental health conditions and was particularly harmful for those who do."

According to the data, 19 percent of incarcerated people who had a mental disorder were placed in isolation as punishment, while only 7 percent of people without a mental illness faced this type of discipline. The audit also found that individuals with a mental illness were about nine times more likely to be subjected to use of force by a jail employee than those without a mental disorder.

The audit explains that, when people are accused of misconduct while incarcerated, they are usually moved into a different cell in "disciplinary housing." This can be an unnerving process for someone with a mental illness.

"When individuals resist the move, sheriff’s office staff use force to move the individual—in some cases, staff used pepper spray or Tasers to gain compliance," the audit reads. "The move to disciplinary housing also involves a strip search when brought into the new cell. Individuals who resist the search are held while their clothing is cut off. The trauma of the move, followed by isolation is particularly harmful for people with mental health conditions."

These findings are reminiscent of the problems within the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) that brought the US Department of Justice (DOJ) to town in 2012. After finding that PPB officers used a disproportionate amount of force against people in a mental health crisis, the DOJ entered a settlement agreement with the city to cure the problem—an agreement that the city remains beholden to.

To address the issues raised in the audit, County Auditor Jennifer McGuirk recommended that the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office, which oversees the jail system, "eliminates the use of isolation as a disciplinary sanction for individuals with mental health conditions." She also suggested the office expand the amount of housing set aside for people with mental illness, as staff had told her that the current space available is insufficient.

The report also illustrates the disproportionate treatment of Black people held in Multnomah County jails.

"For our three-year review period, we conducted analyses of discipline data and found that misconduct citations were handed out disproportionately to Black adults in custody," the audit reads. "We found the difference to be statistically significant, meaning they were not likely the result of chance."

According to the data, Black individuals were more than twice as likely to be subjected to use of force than others. In a survey that the auditors team distributed to inmates, Black adults said they felt less safe with corrections deputies than those of other races.

To address this imbalance, McGuirk recommended the sheriff's office "contract with professionals in training on cultural competency as well as identifying and managing race-related implicit bias."

McGuirk overall urged the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office to eliminate the use of any type of discipline that involves isolation in the jail, offer training for deputies with the goal of reducing misconduct citations, and asked the office to develop an "independent review function" for jail operations, including discipline and use of force incidents.

In his response to the audit, Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese said that his office is in the process of revising the jail's disciplinary system—but removing isolation as a form of punishment may not be an option.

"A new system will consider sanctions aimed at effective behavior modification over simply reducing [time outside of a cell]," wrote Reese in a response letter. "A prohibition on isolation, as it is defined in this report, may not be sufficient to protect adults in our custody and staff from those who have shown a propensity for extreme violence. However, it is recognized a system should not be centered on isolation."

Reese also said that his office is already in the process of implementing a few of the audit's other suggestions, including data collection and de-escalation training for deputies.

"I am committed to evaluating our policies and practices," said Reese, whose term in office ends later this year, "to ensure we uphold our values and the community’s expectation."