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Jails Worse for Blacks in Custody

Audit finds disproportionate use of force

5/3/2022, 1:31 p.m.
A new audit finds that jail conditions in Portland continue to be worse for adults in custody who are Black, ...
A Multnomah County photo shows the Justice Center, downtown, which contains one of the county’s jails. A new audit finds that jail conditions in Multnomah County are worse for adults who are black, or if they have mental health conditions.
A new audit finds that jail conditions in Portland continue to be worse for adults in custody who are Black, or if they have mental health conditions.

The investigation by Multnomah County Auditor Jennifer McGuirk and released to the public on Wednesday is the first in-depth report on conditions people experience when they are incarcerated in the county’s jails, and also evaluates who is in our jails.


It backs up a 2015 report by the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office that suggested that Sheriff’s staff subjected some racial and ethnic groups to a disproportionate use of force. Then in 2017, the county pledged to make improvements to the jails based on a Disability Rights Oregon report that found improper conditions for individuals with mental health conditions.


Evaluating the most current jail data, audit investigators found that misconduct citations continue to be handed out disproportionately to Black adults in custody, saying the difference was statistically significant, meaning it was not likely the result of chance.


The team also found that Black adults in custody were subjected to minor uses of force, such as pointing a Taser or using handcuffs, infrequently, but still at a disproportional and statistically significant rate.


Results for the conditions for adults with mental health conditions were more pronounced; with uses of force more frequent and also used disproportionately and at a statistically significant rate on adults in custody with mental health conditions.


“We hope the information in this audit report can help ground conversations about our legal system in facts that the public can trust,” McGuirk said.  


A series of audit recommendations are made to improve jail conditions, including a possible need to provide added financial resources to operate the jails, supports keeping jails below maximum capacities, and the elimination of isolation as a disciplinary sanction for individuals with mental health conditions.


The county jails should develop and implement a training program designed to reinforce informal solutions to discipline issues and to reduce the need for misconduct citations, the audit says.


The report recommends that the sheriff’s office contract with professionals for training on cultural competency to identify and manage race-related implicit bias. It also calls for more training for deputies on how to work with adults in custody with mental health conditions, and expand the number of housing areas specifically reserved for individuals with mental health conditions.