Multnomah County investigating spike in jail deaths

By Conrad Wilson (OPB)
Aug. 4, 2023 11:41 p.m.

Between May 2 and Aug. 1, six people died in one of the county’s jails. County leaders say drugs smuggled into the jails are among the reasons.

Six people have died in the Multnomah County Jail in less than three months, the largest spike in at least 15 years.

Multnomah County officials blame drugs smuggled into its jails for at least some of the recent in-custody deaths, though they can’t be sure new steps — such as strip searches of people entering the facilities — will solve the problem.


The county’s medical examiner determined two people in custody died by suicide. The other four deaths are still under investigation, but drug overdoses are suspected in at least two, according to the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. Toxicology results are still pending. The county operates two jails, Inverness and the downtown Multnomah County Detention Center, that together can house more than 1,100 people at any one time

“We have people that are coming into our facilities daily, and we are seeing an addiction crisis in our community,” Multnomah County Sheriff Nicole Morrisey O’Donnell told OPB. “People are able to conceal drugs, particularly fentanyl.”

FILE: Nicole Morrisey O’Donnell during her Jan. 4, 2023, swearing in. She oversees a jail system that has seen a recent spike in deaths.

FILE: Nicole Morrisey O’Donnell during her Jan. 4, 2023, swearing in. She oversees a jail system that has seen a recent spike in deaths.

Courtesy of Multnomah County Sheriff's Office

Morrisey O’Donnell said she does not suspect staff or corrections officers are responsible for smuggling drugs into the county’s adult jails. That’s based on what investigators have learned so far after speaking with other adults in custody, as well as where drugs are being found as people are booked into the jails.


Unlike state and federal prisons, which house people convicted of crimes, most people in jail have only been charged with a crime, meaning they’re still legally innocent.

On Aug. 2, the day after the most recent death in custody, Morrisey O’Donnell implemented a temporary policy to search people, naked, before they’re booked. Before that, county correctional officers relied on a body scanner. But fentanyl “is not dense enough to show up on body scanning technology,” the sheriff said.

The sheriff said she’s also consulting with the National Institute of Corrections and expanding the availability of Narcan, an overdose reversal drug.

On Friday, Multnomah County commissioners toured both jails as part of their annual inspection. Last year, voters passed a measure aimed at increasing accountability by requiring commissioners to make at least one additional inspection of the jails each year that includes a member of the public.

Multnomah County Justice Center front.

FILE: The Multnomah County Justice Center in downtown Portland, which houses a jail and four courtrooms.

Amanda Troxler / OPB

Federal rules require states to share all death in custody information, but no state law requires local governments to report deaths in custody.

In 2019, OPB reported more than 300 deaths in Northwest jails during the prior decade. Suicide was by far the most common cause of death.

Multnomah County reported no jail deaths in 2020 and 2021. Last year, the county reported three people died in custody, including one person who died of accidental acute cocaine poisoning and two other deaths the county medical examiner reported as natural.

“When we’re looking at our community and the mental health and addiction crisis that is happening in our community, it’s impacting our jail facilities,” Morrisey O’Donnell said. “We’re looking at populations that look very different in our facilities today than they did in 2019.”