COVID jail outbreak in Portland followed months of warnings
For months, Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese's employees have told him and his managers he wasn't doing enough to fight COVID-19 in the jails he oversees.
Weeks after the outbreak at Inverness Jail in Northeast Portland began, Reese announced somewhat improved safeguards. But employee unions and inmate advocates say he still hasn't gone far enough.
Since the start of 2021, the outbreak has reached 109 inmates who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Reese spokesman Chris Liedle defended precautions at the jails and adds that the vast majority of the inmates who've tested positive so far have not had major symptoms.
Liedle told the Portland Tribune that the sheriff — an independently elected official — has done as the Multnomah County health officials have recommended.
But while scarce funding helps explain some of the safety weaknesses at the Sheriff's office, the public now is paying in another way: what some contend is unprecedented mandatory overtime spending to fill out decimated shift staffing at the jails.
From having only one correction deputy reported as positive by MCSO as of mid-October, MCSO now reports the tally has jumped to at least 30 deputies. In January alone, 16 jail staffers tested positive and more than 60 employees went out on leave due to quarantine, leaving shift managers scrambling to fill absences that can reach 50 percent.
Mandatory overtime has "gone through the roof," Mark Bunnell, president of the union representing corrections deputies in Multnomah County jails, said.
The questions around the Inverness outbreak show that, nearly a year after the highly contagious coronavirus was confirmed in the United States, battling it remains a work in progress. And some government officials have taken it more seriously than others.
Bunnell said his members have been telling Reese and his top managers for months that more stringent safeguards are appropriate — and the onset of vaccination doesn't resolve the union's concerns.
"You have a dike that's leaking from 20 places," Bunnell said. "You don't just plug five of those holes and say 'That's good.'"
Similarly, Eben Pullman of the union that represents doctors and other medical staff at the jails said AFSCME Local 88 has complained repeatedly to sheriff's office leadership without sufficient response, and feel more needs to be done. The union has complained about deputies' failure to wear masks, and poor cleaning practices, among other things.
"We need MCSO to reconsider its efforts on this front," Pullman said, "and put the safety of workers and the adults in custody at the forefront."
As the outbreak at Inverness continued to grow, a group of inmate advocates organized a rally outside county headquarters on Friday, Feb. 5, urging inmate releases, more testing and other safety measures.
"Prisoners are simply asking for KN95 masks, medical care, sweaters, and blankets for those who are ill, and more time outside and at showers to help reduce the spread," one organizer, Rowan Maher, said in a statement.
Liedle said Reese had adopted many aspects of the recommendations and minimum standards issued for jails and prisons by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Oregon Health Authority, though he declined to detail which recommendations had not been implemented.
Pullman, however, said county health managers share the union's concerns at the lack of precautions at the jails.
"We've brought these situations to health department leadership and human resources, and I think (officials there) have been equally concerned by (sheriff's office) lack of responsiveness," Pullman said.
Of all Multnomah county agencies, the one overseen by Reese performed the worst in COVID-safety, according to an employee survey conducted in September and October for a forthcoming report by Auditor Jennifer McGuirk.
It's not just uniformed and civilian staff that have complained of the lack of precautions in Multnomah jails. Inmates have, too.
"Even when I'm an inmate, I am still human," said an Inverness inmate's Dec. 9 complaint to the Multnomah County Attorney's office, one of several such letters. "And I'm afraid of this place where my life is (put) in danger."
Infection rates rise quickly
Recent testimony in federal court showed it took COVID-19 a year to infect 28% of the inmates held in Oregon state facilities, most of them attributed to staff importing the infection from outside prison walls.
In Multnomah, the spread has moved far more rapidly. On Friday, Jan. 29, county officials first reported that one Inverness inmate's positive test result on Jan. 15 had led to 80 more positive results. More inmates at Inverness, about 20, tested positive that weekend.
County officials added earlier cases to the tally dating back to Jan. 5, for a total of 109 — more than one out of five inmates in the 512-bed facility.
Liedle calls the contrast in how fast the disease has spread "comparing apples to oranges," adding that "Inverness Jail is a short-term facility with rapid turnover." And, because medium-security jail doesn't rely on cells, infections in "the large, open dorms at the Inverness Jail are more challenging to control."
He stressed that the sheriff has reduced inmate population to increase physical distancing and instituted other precautions.
When the Portland Tribune published a Jan. 12. article describing COVID-19-related concerns about unsafe conditions in jails, county officials noted their public health dvision has been working long hours to battle more than 100 outbreaks on average. Moreoever they noted that many jail and prisons have battled outbreaks due to cramped, poorly ventilated quarters.
In December, for instance, Seattle's King County jail reported 20 inmates had tested positive.
Weak mask mandate
But there's one area where Reese has lagged Oregon's prisons and some other jurisdictions: requiring employees and inmates to wear masks.
Masks not only reduce the spread of COVID-19, but studies indicate that, by screening out larger airborne droplets and decreasing the initial viral exposure, they tend to reduce the severity of COVID-19 in those infected.
"If jails can't or won't release vulnerable people inside to stop COVID-19 from claiming more lives, the least they can do take some basic measures like requiring staff to wear masks," said Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Institute.
Multnomah's rules on masks have lagged some other jurisdiction. Weak as they are, they haven't always been enforced.
Complaints that many Multnomah County Sheriff's Office deputies don't wear masks have dogged Reese from early on in the pandemic, causing Multnomah County Commission Chair Deborah Kafoury last July to publicly call on Reese to take action to enforce his own rules.
But records show jail managers have been slow to discipline employees who disregarded county rules, which previously required masks when within 6 feet of others.
In October, the sheriff's office told auditors nobody had been disciplined for failure to wear masks, and when Reese was invited to correct a draft in early January, he made no corrections.
But Reese has appeared to beef up discipline since then. On Jan. 29, he issued new guidance requiring staff at Inverness to wear surgical procedure masks during their shift, not the cloth ones that had been required before. That same day he met with the corrections union and stressed that the policy would be enforced.
According to Liedle, the sheriff's office takes mask-wearing seriously and has investigated 11 employees for failing to wear masks, and has disciplined four of them — reportedly an oral reprimand.
But jail employees cite specific examples of deputies who've repeatedly not worn masks without apparent consequence. The sheriff's office has been hit with a string of complaints to the Oregon Occupational Health and Safety Administration including one on Dec. 31, saying "There is widespread non-compliance with mask-wearing at the Multnomah County Detention Center by Sheriff's Office uniformed staff."
Under fire from attorneys, state prison administrators have taken action to beef up their staff mask enforcement.
Other jurisdictions have been more stringent than Multnomah, according to responses the Portland Tribune received from different agencies.
"All staff are required to wear masks," said Nancy Crowley of the San Francisco Sheriff's Office. "The net result is that we have had no large COVID outbreak in our jails since the onset of the virus."
Similarly, King County jails in the Seattle area have had a tougher policy than Multnomah.
"Staff and professional visitors must wear county-issued procedure masks at all times," said Noah Haglund of the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention.
Bunnell, of the deputies union, says his union supports enforcement of mask policies. But he also thinks they should have been enforced for inmates as well. He said his union has called for inmates to wear masks at Inverness since last spring.
"We were told they cannot require them to wear them in the open dorms — even though there's five of them in a little cubicle — because that is considered their home."
He added, "We thought that was silly. We disagreed. We think everyone in the building should be wearing surgical masks."
Reese declined repeated requests to be interviewed about the criticisms of safety precautions at his jails. But his spokesman emailed a statement attributed to Reese.
"Over the course of the pandemic, as these agencies learned more about the virus, guidance has changed to meet the new identified risks. We have adapted to this evolving crisis, changing our protocols to meet new recommendations," said Reese's statement. "I continue to provide clear guidance to staff about the procedures we've put in place in response to the coronavirus to include the requirement of wearing face coverings. It is my expectation that staff adhere to the written policies, special orders and standard operating procedures that direct their work."
Stronger rules elsewhere
On Jan. 29, Reese beefed up inmate mask policies to "strongly encourage" them for inmates in Inverness. Liedle pointed out that standard exceeds the "encourage" minimum standard set by state and federal guidelines.
But that rule is still weaker than some other jurisdictions.
Oregon corrections department spokesman Jennifer Black said state prison officials have been requiring inmates to wear masks since November.
In Seattle's King County, inmates must wear county-issued masks at all times, unless actively eating or drinking, or in a room by themselves," according to the agency.
In Marion County, a spokesman said inmates are required to wear masks whenever not in a cell, and violations may be subject to a 72-hour loss of privileges.
Reese's spokesman, Liedle, said it's impractical to take stronger steps, saying "there are concerns over enforcement of a mask requirement among adults in custody, which raise issues of inequities. The only mechanism MCSO has to enforce such a mandate is the use of the corrections disciplinary system. At a time when amenities … have already been reduced, in accordance with other COVID guidance to reduce risk, loss of privileges can be challenging for (inmates). In addition, the ability to move (inmates) to alternative physical locations due to disciplinary action is limited and discouraged, as we minimize movement and exposure between housing cohorts."
Bunnell said Liedle's answer translates to a lack of cells that can be used to discipline inmates. He said there's a reason for that: Over the union's objections, Reese has continued to shut down an entire floor of cells — 96 of them in all, at the Multnomah County Detention Center downtown — through most of the pandemic. Reese has been doing so as part of a project to refurbish the downtown jail with more cameras and better technology.
Bunnell says pausing the project has been a priority for the union.
"We need every bed we can get," he said the union keeps telling Reese. "And basically, it falls on deaf ears.
"Cells are the most effective way to combat this. That cell door is the best mask you can have," Bunnell said. "They just don't want to put the contract on hold for fear of it costing money, in my opinion. And I can't disagree with their decision on that more."
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.