A civil rights lawsuit filed Tuesday, March 24, in federal court alleges leaders at the Columbia County Jail aren't doing enough to protect inmates from the threat of COVID-19.
Lawyers for the Oregon Justice Resource Center said inmate Michael Thompson, 44, has pre-diabetes, asthma and congestive heart failure and is at risk for the coronavirus. The lawsuit names as defendants Columbia County, Sheriff Brian Pixley and Lt. Brooke McDowall, the interim jail commander. Thompson's lawyers claim there are at least 40 people incarcerated in the Columbia County Jail who could be members of a possible class-action.
As of March 26, there were 114 inmates in the jail. Almost half of those were in custody at the request of U.S. Marshals. The vast majority of other inmates remained in custody while facing criminal charges, but had not been sentenced or convicted.
Pixley said he could not comment on the pending litigation. No court date has been set for the case.
According to the lawsuit, former inmate Bernard Ponzi was detained at the jail in November. One of Ponzi's cell mates was sick and "spent all day and night coughing and sneezing. Mr Ponzi could not distance himself from the cell mate," attorneys wrote.
In early March, Ponzi began feeling ill with symptoms of fever, body aches, coughing and some sneezing, according to the complaint. Ponzi was moved to medical isolation and had his temperature checked twice but was not told what his temperature was, per the lawsuit. As of the filing, Ponzi had not received a COVID-19 test or seen a doctor for his flu-like symptoms. He was released back into general population on March 23, where "he had to purchase soap if he wished to properly wash his hands."
Ponzi was released from the jail the following day.
A large portion of those who have tested positive for COVID-19 nationwide have lived in congregate-living facilities, according to the lawsuit. However, a majority was specifically in assisted-living facilities that house individuals with other risk factors, as opposed to congregate-living facilities like college dorms.
"Given that CCJ needs a full-time staff of a certain number to safely operate the jail at its capacity, employee absences due to illness or quarantine will soon cause the jail to be operating at over-capacity."
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that people who have a higher risk of severe illness due to COVID-19 may include those with chronic lung disease; moderate to severe asthma; serious heart conditions; severe obesity or underlying medical conditions like diabetes, renal failure or liver disease; compromised immune systems, including due to cancer treatment; those 65 years or older and those living in a nursing home or long-term care facility.
The lawsuit claimed that the jail had not followed CDC recommendations to reduce the virus' spread. Plaintiffs have reported not receiving unlimited and freely accessible soap; frequent laundry services; supplies for sanitizing cells; sufficient space to socially distance from inmates; quarantined rooms where air systems suck air out of the room to avoid the spread of the virus; masks to wear when demonstrating COVID-19 symptoms; or medical checks within an hour of demonstrating COVID-19 symptoms.
There is a nurse practitioner in the jail for eight to ten hours per week, Pixley said. A nurse or other medical provider is on duty 12 to 16 hours per day.
Inmates sleep on bunk beds in four-person cells, according to the lawsuit.
"The only cleaning supplies CCJ provides to plaintiffs and other persons held in custody are part of a small hygiene kit that includes a bar of soap, shampoo, a comb, a toothbrush, and toothpaste," according to the complaint, also noting that inmates were charged $1 to send communications to medical staff.
"Given that CCJ needs a full-time staff of a certain number to safely operate the jail at its capacity, employee absences due to illness or quarantine will soon cause the jail to be operating at over-capacity," according to the lawsuit.
The jail has been consistently short-staffed, with some staff having to work overtime to maintain minimum staffing levels.
The lawsuit claims that conditions in the jail violate the Eighth and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution, which call for due process and protect against cruel and unusual punishment, and similar sections of the Oregon Constitution.
Pixley said he is participating in weekly conference calls with jail leaders from around the state to discuss best practices for "keeping our staff, communities and inmates as safe as we can."
"We have drafted COVID prevention procedures for both our patrol staff and our jail which are reviewed regularly to make sure we are being as safe as we can," Pixley added.
As of press time Thursday, the Spotlight had not yet received a copy of those drafted procedures requested under state public records law.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.