Conditions for prisoners suffering from mental illness at the Multnomah County Detention Center have improved over the last year, according to a new report by Disability Rights Oregon.
Last year DRO issued a scathing report on the detention center, saying mentally ill people suffered routine violence, were frequently held in solitary confinement and they found it difficult to get medical treatment.
DRO attorney Sarah Radcliffe said things have changed.
“They have reduced the use of solitary confinement for inmates with mental illness and [have] also taken some steps to expand access to health care," Radcliffe said. "So we’re encouraged by those first steps and I think we just need to all keep a watchful eye on the jail to make sure this progress is sustained.”
The report contained three basic recommendations: better suicide precautions are needed; there needs to be more space for therapeutic treatment; and the county needs to provide more mental health services and housing.
“We must recognize that we have yet to tackle the hardest piece of work: decriminalizing mental health crisis,” Radcliffe said.
“Sadly, the jail remains a de facto ‘dumping ground’ for people with mental health conditions. For these men and women the seeming never-ending cycle of ‘charge and release’ to the streets persists. Transforming the whole system — from admission to discharge — so that it’s geared toward successful re-entry is what our city needs.”
Multnomah County Sheriff Michael Reese appreciated acknowledgement of the progress that's been made, "We increased staffing at the Training Unit in order to train corrections deputies in de-escalation, crisis management, and a nationally-recognized Mental Health First Aid curriculum," he said.
"While common in law enforcement training, I believe these are core competencies for corrections professionals as well."
Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said, "The DRO report highlighted serious concerns and we responded with investments in last year's budget to improve the quality of care provided by Corrections Health. I'm pleased the sheriff was a willing partner, hearing DRO's concerns and working with us to provide better care for very vulnerable people."
Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran has said the county needs to keep fewer people with mental illness from being booked into jail in the first place. She said that means improving options outside the criminal justice system, so that jails don't end up being a primary option.
Radcliffe agrees. She said people need to be diverted to treatment instead. And mentally ill inmates who leave need more help finding housing, mental health care and drug and alcohol treatment.
Every year, about 35,000 people are booked into Multnomah County’s central booking facility. Depending on how you define mental illness, between 35 and 80 percent experience some form of mental illness.
Such mass incarceration of people with mental illnesses is not a problem particular to Portland. Similar rates are mirrored across the country.