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Legal complaint from woman targets Columbia County Jail practices as 'cruel and unusual punishment'

Over the past year, Columbia County's treatment of jail inmates with mental health issues has come under the microscope.

In October, the county settled with a St. Helens man who was attacked by a police dog while inside a cell at the Columbia County Jail. The lawsuit alleged the inmate was mistreated for exhibiting signs of mental illness.SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - A jail deputy delivers meals to inmates at the Columbia County Jail in St. Helens. Columbia County is named in a federal lawsuit alleging the county jail violated federal laws and the civil rights of an inmate with mental illness.

Now, the county faces another federal lawsuit, one alleging the county jail's treatment of mentally ill inmates "amounts to torture."

The lawsuit, filed Dec. 5 by legal firm Levi Merrithew Horst PC on behalf of Amy Schwirse, a former jail inmate, alleges cruel and unusual punishment, violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and negligence on behalf of jail staff, the former sheriff, and the jail's contracted mental health provider, Correct Care Solutions.

The complaint suggests jail deputies have inadequate training on how to interact with inmates facing behavioral health issues and, as a result, inmates are punished for exhibiting behaviors "which are nothing more than symptoms of mental illness."

"Despite the widespread understanding that mentally ill people make up a substantial portion of its prisoner population, neither Columbia County nor the Sheriff established adequate systems and policies to provide for the basic welfare of mentally ill prisoners," the complaint states. "As a result, mentally ill prisoners are denied humane treatment because of their mental illness. They do not receive adequate food, water, nutrition, basic hygiene, medication, access to programming, or access to outside visits."

Schwirse was sentenced to jail after being convicted of a probation violation in 2016 stemming from a misdemeanor crime. She was eligible to be transferred to an approved treatment court after 90 days in jail, but that never happened, her attorneys say. Schwirse instead ended up serving the entirety of her nearly year-long sentence in the Columbia County Jail.

According to her attorneys, Schwirse was well-known by law enforcement officers in the county, and had been prescribed anti-psychotic medication that was documented in her jail medical records. Despite documentation and previous interaction with Schwirse, jail officials put her in an isolated pod within the jail and she didn't get proper access to her medication, the lawsuit alleges.

"During her time in custody, she received no mental health treatment and no alcohol or drug treatment," the complaint states. "She stopped receiving her necessary anti-psychotic medication. She lost a significant amount of weight ... Ms. Schwirse began having active delusions and became unable to carry on normal conversations or provide for her basic needs."

A few months later, in April 2017, Schwirse was again arrested for disorderly conduct and sent to jail, where attorneys say she wasn't given any mental health treatment, medication or even enough food, because of a protocol at the jail that can lead to skipped meals if inmates do not immediately respond when food is delivered to the cell, the lawsuit indicates.

Susan Whalen, the legal guardian for Schwirse who is suing the county on Schwirse's behalf, says the woman entered the jail "a functional person who could walk and talk and converse with others," but left the jail in a catatonic psychosis as a result of severe neglect at the jail.

Jail officials said earlier this year that a plan to have greater access to mental health counseling, including a full-time counselor on site, was in the works, but jail officials say provider staffing shortages have left the position at the jail vacant.

"We had previously contracted with Columbia Community Mental Health to provide 30-40 hours per week of crisis intervention and counseling services," Lt. Brian Pixley, who is slated to be sworn-in as the new sheriff of the Columbia County Sheriff's Office, stated in an email to the Spotlight. He said he hopes to see the position staffed again at 30-40 hours a week.

Pixley confirmed that the jail also continues to contract with Correct Care Solutions for 20 hours a week, with services provided on an as-needed basis. Even with contracts in place, the sheriff-elect acknowledges that services may not be able to meet all the jail's needs.

"Since we do have such limited time available, we start with inmates who are actively suffering from a mental health crisis," Pixley explained. "Then the providers work with inmates who have requested mental health services. They also work with inmates who jail staff identify as possibly needing mental health services — if the inmate is willing to be seen. Finally, with the time remaining they do follow up/maintenance types of appointments."

Correct Care Solutions, did not respond to a request for comment about its treatment services.

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