Reveal: The Center for Investigative Reporting

Washington County Jail houses 572 offenders and books in around 18,000 individuals each year. Each day, the jail receives nearly 50 new arrested offenders and releases a similar number daily. In order to keep this operation going continuously 24/7, between 75 and 100 staff members come and go daily inside the secure jail.

Predominantly, the Washington County Jail features single cells, housing one offender. However, the male intake housing unit is comprised of 8 dorm rooms, each with 8 beds. Each of the general population housing units feature 4 double occupancy cells and 52 single cells. Finally, the Medical Observation Unit is made up of 21 cells intended to house between 1 and 4 persons, depending on needs and population at any given time.

The Washington County Jail has been operating at full capacity for a very long time, resulting in force releasing due to overcrowding regularly. Social distancing measures required to contain spread of COVID-19 seem impossible in this setting. Some measures have already been implemented to include a health survey at intake to detect potential exposure pre-arrest and additional cleaning throughout the jail. However, I believe that we can and should be doing more.

Those offenders who are pretrial for low level and nonviolent crimes should be considered for release or lowered bails. These measures can be accomplished with collaboration between the sheriff’s office and judicial staff to create a temporary order for expanded recognizance release conditions during our state of emergency. In addition, post prison supervision and probation violators, who make up at least 60% of the daily jail population can be considered for delayed sanctions, electronic home monitoring, or reduced and suspended sanctions. These measures allow offenders to take personal protective actions, reduces jail population, and allows for more flexibility in the event of staffing shortages which should be expected.

Once the jail population has been significantly reduced while maintaining custody of more dangerous offenders and offenders who pose continued risk to the public, social distancing measures can be meaningfully taken for remaining inmates. Double and multiple occupancy cells can be suspended while those exhibiting symptoms can be co-located into a single housing unit. New arrestees can be housed in single cell housing rather than dormitory housing.

These measures are not only important to keep the offenders safe but to ensure the safety and reduce exposure for staff who go home daily to their families in our communities. With Washington County Sheriff’s Office jail staffing already at critical lows before the COVID-19 spread, additional absences are likely to create a situation where inmate and staff safety are profoundly compromised. Although some plans have been discussed to address expected staffing shortages, decision makers at the sheriff’s office have chosen a reactionary plan, waiting for positive cases or staffing shortages reaching critical levels before taking notable steps to ensure safety and reduce exposure for staff and offenders.

I call for immediate release and alternative sentencing of nonviolent and low-level offenders, with expanded eligibility and reduced or waived costs. I call for immediate 3 shift staffing rather than the current 4 shift staffing to reduce the numbers of overtime spots required for each staff absence. I call for providing indigent soap to every single housed offender, increasing access to cell cleaning supplies, and doubled efforts of cleaning intake, release, and common areas several times daily.

Visits in the jail are not contact, and do not risk exposure to housed offenders but do encourage family members to venture out to go to the jail for visits. I call for the jail to require its contractor to allow at least one free video visit per inmate weekly. There are dozens of measures that can be taken to protect our jail populations, our sheriff’s office staff, attorneys and judicial staff, and community partners working with offenders. I urge the Washington County Sheriff’ Office to take these measures immediately rather than waiting until it is too late!

Thank you for reading,
Red Wortham
Red Wortham Red Wortham for Sheriff
PO Box 1623
Hillsboro, Oregon 97123
(503) 987-0220
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