Most of the people who died in Oregon’s jail last year had a disability, according to a new report by Disability Rights Oregon released Monday.
The report looked at deaths between January and the end of October, during which at least 10 people died in Oregon’s jails. The report did not review deaths inside the state’s prisons.
Despite a drop in jail populations last year because of COVID-19, Disability Rights Oregon found the number of people dying actually increased from previous years.
The nonprofit also found five of the 10 people who died had a mental health condition, and that six died by suicide — the leading cause of death.
OPB and the Northwest News Network made a similar finding in a 2019 investigative series, “Booked and Buried,” after the newsrooms uncovered and analyzed more than a decade of jail deaths in Oregon and Washington.
Liz Reetz wrote the report for Disability Rights Oregon and argues the lack of mental and behavioral health services in communities across the state are driving the deaths in local jails.
“We see people dying because they don’t have access to what they need in the community,” she said. “Then we’re asking jails to step in and solve all of these roles — the detox center, the psychiatric crisis center, the health care provider — that they weren’t really made to do.”
Many sheriffs and jail commanders candidly agreed they didn’t have the appropriate resources and services to meet what they described as an increasingly challenging population in their facilities.
“We don’t want to criminalize mental health, mental illness. That’s not what we do,” Clackamas County’s jail commander Capt. Lee Eby told OPB in 2019. “Unfortunately, as everybody has said, it’s become kind of a cliché: Jails are the new mental hospitals.”
In Disability Rights Oregon’s jail report, law enforcement also stressed the need for more services.
“Smaller, rural communities in particular lack sufficient mental health services,” Clatsop County Sheriff Matt Phillips told the nonprofit. “Greater investments in local mental health care will result in fewer arrests and make our communities stronger. People with mental illness should have their most basic health care needs met in the community.”
Despite the concerning reports and calls for more assistance, the majority of the data collection and analysis about those dying in Northwest jails has been done by newsrooms and nonprofits, rather than by the state government.
Oregon and Washington still don’t track deaths in jail at the state level, though Oregon passed a bill in 2019 following OPB’s reporting that would set up a roadmap to such a system. Many worry that until that system is in place, it will be hard to get more services to prevent those with disabilities or in a mental health crisis from falling into contact with the criminal justice system.