Fifteen inmates who contracted COVID-19 while at Multnomah County’s Inverness Jail are suing the county and Sheriff Mike Reese, alleging they were negligent by not taking proper safety precautions, denying testing and mixing infected inmates and guards with those who were healthy in jail dorms.
The county’s response to the coronavirus pandemic was “woefully inadequate,” the suit alleges, noting that 38% of adults in custody in the Northeast Portland jail tested positive by Feb. 17. The jail houses about 5,126 inmates.
The suit alleges the jail failed to provide adequate soap, sanitizers or protective masks to inmates, quarantine infected inmates or screen staff or inmates for symptoms.
“The reason for the outbreak is not a mystery,” the suit says. “Defendants’ failure to require, or enforce, social distancing, PPE (personal protective equipment), increased testing, or other precautions in jails and jails known to slow the spread of COVID-19 placed plaintiffs at imminent risk of contracting COVID-19.”
The plaintiffs are seeking a court order that will require social distancing, proper testing, sanitation and compliance by county jails with other federal and state health guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Oregon Health Authority.
It also seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. Attorneys Carl Post, John Burgess and Tara Herivel filed the class action suit in U.S. District Court in Portland on Monday.
In mid-February, the Sheriff’s Office said it was working to reduce jail populations after a COVID-19 outbreak by limiting new arrests, releasing some inmates early and delaying sentences.
By then, the outbreak had infected more than 140 inmates at Inverness Jail since the beginning of the year, leading to an outcry from inmates and public defenders.
Chris Liedle, spokesman for the sheriff’s office, on Tuesday declined comment on the pending litigation.
On March 23, Multnomah County Public Health declared the coronavirus outbreak at Inverness Jail over, calling it one of the " most challenging periods” at the jail of mostly large open dorms with shared dining and shower facilities. Since the first positive case was identified in December, 198 adults in custody and 31 corrections staff or members of their households tested positive. It was the largest and longest outbreak at either of the county’s two detention centers.
Among the practices that will continue, the county announced: limited movement by adults in custody, no in-person visits, the wearing of procedural masks by all, regular deep cleaning and fewer and less frequent admissions of new people into the facility. In early February, the county also began offering vaccines to inmates and by late March reported 286 inmates had received one dose and 224 had two doses.
In a survey of county employees done by the county auditor’s office last fall, more than 50% of Sheriff’s Office staff in the jail responded that county employees wear face coverings only sometimes or rarely, according to the suit.
One of the plaintiffs, inmate Mark Wicklund, contracted COVID-19 after he had been transferred downtown for court on Jan. 13 of this year and placed in a holding cell with about 10 quarantined inmates for several hours, the suit says.
He was returned to Inverness along with the 10 quarantined inmates, was transferred to another dorm with healthy inmates and two days later began experiencing symptoms. He tested positive on Jan. 15.
Another plaintiff, Joshua Krumweide, began experiencing symptoms Jan. 18. After testing positive, he was choking and coughing, scared for his life and “spitting up blood” in his bed before he was taken to OHSU Hospital, the suit says.
— Maxine Bernstein
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