Grand jury finds Multnomah County jails should keep fewer people behind bars

By Conrad Wilson (OPB)
Nov. 9, 2021 1:02 a.m.

Multnomah County’s jails face “critical” staffing shortages on a daily basis, while those reporting to work are facing burnout and are being met with a jail population in greater need of mental health and substance abuse services, according to an annual grand jury report released Monday.

“Testimony referenced that the jail system is beginning to serve as a de facto mental health hospital, despite not being adequately equipped to serve such a function,” the report stated.


Corrections deputies are particularly short-staffed — a problem described at times to the grand jury as a “catastrophic” situation that is “both a chronic and acute crisis.” The staffing shortages have lead to mandatory overtime that has hurt moral, and caused early retirements and difficulty in recruiting new employees.

“This situation has been exacerbated by stress from the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, recent societal questions regarding the role of law enforcement in Multnomah County, and perceived generational differences in career/lifestyle balance regarding willingness to work overtime,” the grand jury report stated. “Additionally, the increased levels of mental illness and addiction issues among the [adults in custody], without a corresponding increase in the number of dedicated mental health and medical staff, has placed added stress on corrections deputies.”

The seven members of the grand jury convened Oct. 5 and met for several weeks, hearing from a variety of witnesses, including sheriff’s office staff, medical staff, a defense attorney, a circuit court judge, county commissioners, prosecutors in the district attorneys office, the food services provider and three people in custody.

In addition to the county’s downtown detention center and Inverness Jail, the grand jury also looked at Donald Long Juvenile Justice Center, which is also operated by the county, and the Columbia River Correctional Institution, a minimum security prison run by the Oregon Department of Corrections and located in the county.

Multnomah County Justice Center front.

The Multnomah County Justice Center in downtown Portland, which houses a jail and four courtrooms, as well as Portland Police Bureau' central precinct.

Amanda Troxler / OPB

Staffing shortages at the Multnomah County Detention Center have extended to other areas of the criminal justice system, including the courts. Witnesses told the grand jury that legal proceedings are regularly delayed because of staffing shortages, leaving judges and attorneys waiting for defendants to arrive in court.


The grand jury also “heard testimony regarding [Multnomah County Detention Center’s] needing to use disciplinary cells for general housing due to staffing shortages, which is unfairly punitive to AICs and limits attorney access,” the report found.

Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese, in a statement, said the report contained “constructive and sensible” recommendations to address the issues.

The report noted the jails have been working at a reduced capacity since the pandemic began. The grand jury noted that a lower level of incarceration has helped mitigate some of the problems arising from the staffing shortage, and recommended the jail maintain few people behind bars.

“It is the hope of the [Corrections Grand Jury] that going forward a combination of strategies will be employed to maintain a maximum 80-85% capacity when the pandemic subsides and staffing levels improve,” the report found.

The grand jury report said more staff should be hired to address people in custody needing mental health and substance abuse services. Cells that once housed people needing those services, have been repurposed for COVID-19 medical containment.

“Currently, the overall health services department has roughly one health care professional for every six AICs,” the report states. “However, testimony from within the mental health unit specifically stated that the number of mental health specialists were insufficient and should be increased to double or triple the current levels.”

The grand jury report lauded the county’s recent efforts to launch jail alternatives for people experiencing substance abuse or mental health crises.

The report also called for an upgraded camera system at the Inverness Jail and an increase in the number of attorney phones because, it said, there is one per dorm.