The tear gas that law enforcement aimed at protesters on a nightly basis this summer in response to racial justice demonstrations regularly seeped into the cells at a Portland jail, according to a federal class action lawsuit filed Monday. The suit alleges the gas choked inmates without intervention from the on-duty guards.
Attorneys representing plaintiffs Theresa Davis, Rashawd Duhart and Robin Lundy - all inmates at the jail this summer - filed the suit on behalf of what they estimate to be hundreds of detainees exposed to gas this summer while inside the Multnomah County Detention Center. Both local and federal law enforcement regularly deployed tear gas and other chemicals at the demonstrations, many of which took place downtown a short distance from the jail.
The suit alleges Multnomah County’s Sheriff Mike Reese and his deputies failed to help inmates as the detention center’s ventilation system sucked in tear gas and smoke and sent it into their cells. According to the suit, on multiple nights, guards denied inmates’ cries for medical care and refused to open the small openings in the cell doors. The suit alleges one guard disabled the ringing at her desk phone, so she wouldn’t hear inmates repeatedly pressing the call button for help.
“Detainees and inmates were left alone to suffer the effects, including coughing, gagging, inability to breathe, irritation of their eyes, and incredible fear,” reads the suit. “Many believed the building was on fire, and that they would be left there to die.”
The suit states fresh air was near impossible to come by as the ventilation system pushed the chemicals into the cells. The cell doors have a small slot where inmates can receive food, which typically remains shut, and there is a space between the bottom of the door and the floor. After the gas started getting pumped in, the suit says some inmates lay on the ground near this crack to try and get air.
The suit also names the sheriff’s office Chief Deputy of Corrections Steven Alexander, facility commander of MCDC Jeffrey Wheeler, Sergeant Brian Beardsley, and deputy sheriffs Kendall Clark, Jose Palomera, Amy Hay and Aaron Van Houte as defendants.
The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. After Willamette Week reported on the July 21 gassing, the sheriff’s office reportedly told the outlet that “a few adults” asked for medical treatment, “but no one was treated medically for exposure.” They proposed to close the ventilation system’s air dampers the valve that regulates air flow - overnight.
The suit delves into the specifics of two nights in July. On July 21, around midnight, smoke poured through the vents and into the cells in Dorm 7D and Dorm 8D, one floor above. The suit says the women in 8D were left alone for over half-an-hour having panic attacks and coughing fits. One was pregnant.
According to the suit, a guard told the inmates to “deal with it” and “suck it up” after they began pounding on doors and repeatedly pressing their emergency call buttons on their cells. It wasn’t until more than 40 minutes later that a sergeant on duty opened the small door opening.
In the men’s dorm one floor down, a similar scenario was playing out, according to the suit. Despite inmates repeatedly pressing the emergency call button, the guard refused to open the door, allegedly telling an inmate he wouldn’t open the door “Because your skinny ass can fit through and slide out.” That night, several of the men had asthma attacks due to the gas and another suffered a severe nose bleed, according to the suit.
On the night of July 24, the women in 8D again woke up screaming and choking as gas poured in, according to the suit. An on-duty guard refused to open the food ports and answer the requests for medical assistance. Again, in the men’s dorm, the guard refused to open the ports in the door.
“Many developed routines to attempt to survive the repeated gassings, including hiding under the covers, using extra sheets to make a tent to trap breathable air, covering one’s face with a wet towel or shirt, stuffing the vents full of toilet paper, or heavily relying upon asthma inhalers,” the suit read. “Jail deputies and supervisors alike treated detainees callously, inhumanely, and with deliberate indifference verging on torment.”
Plaintiff Rashawd Duhart, who was in dorm 7D while he waited for his trial, said in a statement he once woke up vomiting from the gas.
“Guards would just do their normal rounds and keep walking. They wouldn’t look at you. Just say there’s nothing they could do and walk away,” Duhart said, “I was surprised they didn’t send us to the other jail. There was no explanation. Everyone felt they couldn’t rely on the officers. We were on our own.”
Joe Piucci, the lead lawyer for the case, wrote in a statement that Multnomah County had failed to care for the inmates in the county’s care, declining to move them to a second jail in Northeast Portland.
“The 8th Amendment of the Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. This case is a poster child of that kind of cruelty,” said Piucci, “These were human beings trapped in toxic gas-filled cells, night after night. This can’t be who we are.”