Marion County Jail (courtesy of Marion County Sheriff's Office)
Despite Oregon jails cutting their populations in half on average because of the pandemic, more people died in local correctional institutions last year, including Marion and Polk counties, according to a new report released by Disability Rights Oregon.
The report found similar circumstances surrounding 10 deaths in eight locally run jails the disability rights group investigated last year. Over half of the people who died in jails had a mental illness or a substance abuse disorder, according to the report. It concluded that their deaths could have been prevented with better standards of care and for directing people to community health services instead of jail.
“We have long known that jails have become the de facto mental health provider for many communities and yet are ill-equipped to provide the necessary care,” the report said. “The catastrophic loss of life detailed in this report demands better solutions.”
Liz Reetz, the author of the report, said that Marion and Polk County jails are “not immune to the general patterns that we found.”
The report didn’t provide names of people who died in local jails, and Reetz wouldn't provide details out of privacy concerns.
However, in March of last year, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office issued a news release that Joshua Ryan Mangel was found dead in his cell in the jail from an apparent suicide. In July, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office reported that Sanson Garcia-Perez died a similar death while in custody.
Of the 10 deaths included in the report, six were by suicide. The report said that each person that died by suicide was left unsupervised in their cell. It also criticized jails for not addressing fixtures that prisoners could use to hang themselves.
The report also found that people in jails who express suicidal thoughts are put in isolation, are denied phone calls, have their clothes and personal items taken from them and made to wear a smock. People incarcerated in jails are less likely to report suicidal thoughts because of these protocols, according to the report.
“In every single one of these jails the suicide protocols were punitive,” said Reetz. “These aren’t necessary to keep people safe. In fact, it makes them less safe.”
Morgan Smith, attorney for Polk County, declined to comment on the report citing a tort claim filed against the county related to a death in the jail.
Sgt. Jeremy Landers, spokesman for the Marion County Sheriff's Office, said in an email that the agency had not had a chance to review the report. But said that the sheriff’s office is looking to improve conditions.
“As a professional organization, it's important we continually assess our practices to ensure we are providing adequate care for those housed in our facilities,” he said.
Marion County has cut its jail population by nearly a third because of the pandemic and was at 281 in May of last year, according to figures from Disability Rights Oregon. Polk County reduced its population by nearly 76% to 29, according to the figures.
The report pointed out that data is limited on jails death. But the report pointed to an OPB investigation that found that seven people died in Oregon jails in 2019 and nine in 2018. The report found there were at least 10 deaths in jails during the first 10 months of 2020.
Reetz said that these deaths had a number of common factors.
Jails also used restraints that were harmful to people with mental illness or unsafe, according to the report. In particular, it called out the “prone restraint,” where someone is held face down on the ground. One prisoner in Clatsop County died after being held in this position, the report said.
Reetz said that jails should instead adopt restraint standards that are used in clinical settings, such as a psychiatric hospital. She also said that staff should use de-escalation techniques to avoid restraints from having to be used at all. The prone restraint hold should be banned outright, she said.
Local hospitals regularly allowed individuals to be transported to jail regardless of the severity of their medical or mental health condition, the report found. Additionally, the standard of medical care jails are required to provide has not been updated since the 1970s and people incarcerated aren’t provided adequate treatment, the report found.
The report looked at jails in Clatsop, Deschutes, Jackson, Klamath, Marion and Polk counties, as well as the Springfield Municipal Jail and the NORCOR detention center in The Dalles. It called for better tracking of data on local jail deaths and health screenings of prisoners, as well as more state oversight of local correctional facilities.
More broadly, each of the 10 people who died in Oregon jails in 2020 was facing low-level charges caused by behavioral health issues, poverty or “difficult life circumstances,” according to the report.
Additionally, the report called for an expansion of community-based mental health services and a reduction in the reliance on jails for managing people who commit low-level infractions.
Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.
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