PORTLAND, Ore. — Ben Baker says he spent several hours inside the Multnomah County Inverness Jail in late March. This was about the same time a COVID outbreak, that sickened nearly 200 inmates, staff and family members, was coming to an end. Baker recalls sitting in a holding cell with about a dozen inmates. He says some inmates were wearing masks, some were not.
"I'd put it on staff to be more prudent and I didn't feel that," Baker said. "I was stressed. I had a guy leaning on me, no mask, yelling and screaming about how he has COVID."
Based on what he experienced, Baker is not at all surprised that a lawsuit was filed against Multnomah County, including Sheriff Mike Reese and jail staff.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of more than a dozen inmates who tested positive for COVID, claims that Inverness staff failed to protect the adults in custody, or AICs. The lawsuit alleges there was inadequate social distancing, face coverings, soap and sanitizer, among other things.
"What we see here is a fundamental lack of caring for a community of people and such dehumanization of a community of people," said lawyer Tara Herivel. "We need to be bigger than this."
Herivel is one of the lawyers representing the inmates. She hopes the lawsuit leads to regular testing, access to disinfecting solutions and a safety plan to prevent additional COVID outbreaks.
"We are as good as we treat the most marginalized in our communities," she said. "We must lift us all up and protect us all for the betterment of everyone."
A spokesperson for the sheriff's office tells KGW they do not comment on pending litigation, but adds that at the onset of the pandemic they worked with health officials to keep inmates safe and they are constantly adapting their response that includes dozens of safety policies.
"There has been, to my knowledge, no comprehensive enforcement or compliance efforts to attach to the policies," Herivel said.
Baker agrees. He says the follow through at the Multnomah County Inverness Jail is lacking. He hopes the county improves its COVID response at Inverness.
"We all need to work together and law enforcement should be at the forefront of that as well," Baker said.