Why lock people up?
In the spring of 2013, the Lane County Sheriff’s Office began to give a persuasive reason for putting people behind bars: to keep the dangerous ones away from the public.
Informed by the frequent press releases from the sheriff’s office, local media began to describe Lane County Jail as a “revolving door” and underfunded to the point that it regularly released even Measure 11 offenders — those who commit serious violent or sex-related crimes — for lack of holding capacity.
By a margin of 14 percent, Lane County voters approved a five-year levy to double the number of beds at the jail.
The strategy worked. The sheriff’s office reported in October 2014 that, having increased the number of local jail beds from 131 to 256, no inmates locked up for Measure 11 offenses or violent felonies have seen early release since the levy passed.
But we don’t jail people just to keep ourselves safe. We do it to punish the offenders. And we punish them with a jail experience that is supposed to be uncomfortable enough to deter them from committing more crimes.
When an offender is chronically homeless or mentally ill, however, traditional reasoning for why and how we do this breaks down. What if what the offender gained from the crime was a place to rest? What if the punishment also fills that need?
“It’s kind of a sad statement that I regularly go to the police blotter to look over the pictures and what people have been put in jail for to find out where some of our patients are this week,” says Sue Sierralupe, clinic manager of Occupy Medical, a free medical clinic that treats many homeless and mentally ill patients. “Some people, they get caught for criminal trespass and they’re just like, ‘Take me in. I haven’t eaten in four days. Go right ahead, I need something.’”
One thing is clear from the stories and lawsuits of local homeless and mentally ill folks: Jail can become a routine. As a correctional facility, Lane County Jail is not intended to serve as housing for the unhoused, health care for the untreated or a mental health institution for the mentally ill. But it often has to.
Lane County closed only one of its revolving doors in 2013. Until we find more efficient and compassionate ways to aid the homeless and mentally ill — such as giving them housing to stabilize their lives — many of them will rotate indefinitely between a life on the streets and time behind bars.
The jail itself sits at the north end of Olive Street — a boxy brick building lined with rolls of barbwire and rectangular windows that glow yellow at night. It is a huge, old institution that has been experienced in every way imaginable by the many thousands of inmates who have come and gone. It’s a saving grace. It’s dehumanizing. It’s unjust. It’s fine.
The inmates, both pretrial defendants and offenders serving local time, come from Lane County, Eugene and Springfield, which also has its own jail.
According to the jail’s public information officer, Sgt. Carrie Carver, the computer filing system at the jail isn’t able to compile the number of people booked for a particular offense because a person might be booked for one thing, then charged with something else. A homeless person might be booked for criminal trepass, but then later cited for prohibited camping, for example.
It is also unclear exactly how many unhoused inmates pass through the jail; the jail does not keep records of it.
After an EW inquiry, Lt. Dan Buckwald, alternative programs manager at the jail, says he intends to record the number of unhoused inmates in the future.
In December 2008, Springfield police arrested a homeless man named Mark Kemp, who has severe bipolar disorder, as he was experiencing an episode of acute psychosis.
According to a press release prepared by Civil Liberties Defense Center (CLDC), the police brought Kemp to Lane County Jail, where jail staff “failed to provide adequate intake assessments” and released him onto the street later that night.
The next morning, Eugene police were called to a building across the street from the jail where Kemp had flooded an office bathroom, explaining that “he had fallen in a well and needed help.”
Police brought Kemp back to the jail and placed him in a medical segregation cell. He was put on suicide watch, meaning that guards documented his situation every half hour, but was given neither medical attention nor psychiatric treatment.
“He has very few memories, but the ones he has haunt him to this day,” says Lauren Regan, executive director of CLDC and Kemp’s attorney. According to CLDC, “he remained unbathed in his own food and feces, he did not eat or drink water, was punched in the head by one of the defendant guards, and moaned and laid naked on the cement floor for days.”
On Kemp’s thirteenth day at the jail, he was brought to the hospital after a guard saw his eyes rolling back and his mouth foaming.
“He ended up being in intensive care for 21 days,” Regan says. “All his organs had shut down. He had encephalopathy, which is the swelling of the brain, which can be fatal. He will have health ramifications from that deteriorated state for the rest of his life.”
In hope that it would prevent another inmate from having a similar experience, Kemp worked with Regan to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against Lane County and some of its employees, alleging that they infringed upon his constitutional rights by inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on him.
According to Regan, it was in part because of Kemp’s case that the jail transitioned to a Corizon-run health care system, and many staff members were fired for negligence and failure to provide sufficient medical care.
In July 2013, Lane County paid Kemp an out-of-court settlement of $500,000.
According to Regan, Kemp is doing better physically and is now on medication and seeing a psychiatrist regularly. He gets help managing his settlement money in a trust and is no longer homeless. But Kemp, who was born and raised on the McKenzie River, no longer lives in the U.S. for fear of the police. “We certainly hope that at some point he will feel safe enough to return here if he wants to,” Regan says.
What happened to Kemp, Regan says, is due in part to the fact that he was brought to the jail in the first place.
For the homeless, the path to jail can start anywhere. For Tommy, it started on the steps of WOW Hall, a week before Christmas.* He was there at 6:30 am, he says, drawing a picture and waiting for a restaurant to open up so he could buy some breakfast for friends, when the police rolled up.
He was soon arrested and brought to the jail. Trespassing was his crime, though he thinks his reputation had something to do with his arrest: “I think they probably recognized us because my two friends and I are kind of notorious. But it doesn’t matter if we’re notorious — that’s not illegal.”
A decade ago, as a young adult, Tommy had been in jail many times, but this was his first incarceration in a while. Not a lot had changed. While he was being booked at the processing desk, he signed a form saying that the jail had all the possessions he was arrested with. An officer questioned him about his health, and Tommy explained that he was experiencing two outbreaks of staph infection as a result of injecting heroin.
Though he was carrying antibiotics for the infection, Tommy says jail staff denied him access to the medicine, instead sending his health report to the jail health care provider to fill his prescription. They then sent him to a room that inmates call “the fishbowl” — a plain, purgatory-like room with chairs and a TV where inmates wait to be told where they’ll be staying in the jail.
To Tommy’s dismay, fearing that he might spread his staph infection to other inmates, he was placed in one of the dormitories.
Dormitories, sometimes called “gen pop” (general population) by inmates, are large, open rooms containing around 35 to 50 beds lined against a wall. They are self-contained living centers with classrooms, video visitation stations, tables for eating and socializing, and communal sinks, toilets and showers.
Dorms resemble a less sinister version of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon design, arranged side-by-side in a circular shape and under constant scrutiny from officers stationed at a central observation post behind a glass wall. The officers do not have guns, instead carrying pepper foam and Tasers.
When inmates are booked into the jail they are given a “risk-assessment tool” that classifies them based on their current charges, past convictions and institutional behavior. Primarily, this is to determine if an inmate is dangerous enough that he should be put in a single cell rather than into general population.
An inmate deemed virally contagious is placed into a “negative pressure cell” that restricts airflow in and out.
For Michael, his jail experience started on the UO campus. One stormy evening last spring, after studying in the architecture library, he says he fell asleep on a Lawrence Hall bench while waiting for the rain to stop, near a classroom in which he had studied Russian more than 50 years ago. Campus police officers found him and placed him on a list barring him from campus.
Over the decades, Michael, who has taken classes at the university and says he cherished it as a friendly, diverse space to exchange ideas, considered this unacceptable. To stop spending time on campus because of this “unconstitutional process,” Michael says, “would be to succumb to that ignorance and malfeasance.”
On Aug. 1, after being spotted on campus again, Michael was pulled over by two campus police vehicles on his way across Kincaid and driven to jail.
By the time Michael arrived at the jail, he was indignant. As they processed him and his possessions, they ordered him to put his nose on the wall, blinding him to what they were doing. When they inquired about his current medications and ailments, he says that he refused to tell them anything in order to retain some dignity and control of his situation, explaining that it was privileged information.
Before he signed off that they had his cash, Michael made them count it in front of him. Because of this attitude, Michael thinks, he was led not to the fishbowl but a single cold cell with a wooden bench, a toilet and a sink. Guards refused to give him a blanket, paper, pencil or Bible. It was past dinnertime at the jail. Michael sat.
Healthcare Behind Bars
To care for someone you are also punishing is a strange task. With an average intake at Lane County Jail of 30 new inmates per day, or 30 new inmates to see and treat, it is also a logistical nightmare. And they don’t make it look easy.
In July 2012, the jail transitioned from overseeing its own medical services to a contract with the Tennessee-based, many-tentacled correctional health care provider Corizon. Serving 345,000 inmates around the U.S., Corizon is the country’s biggest private corrections health care provider.
According to a 2013 article published by Florida Bulldog, Corizon facilities across the country had previously been sued 660 times for malpractice, and an Associated Press article this January reported that Corizon has lost five state prison contracts.
Corizon employees at the jail all sign contracts stating they will not communicate with the media, and at press time Corizon had not responded to requests for more information on its written procedures.
One procedure, according to Buckwald, is to provide everything in-house: Incoming inmates must sign a medical release form so that Corizon staff can contact the inmate’s pharmacy or doctor and get their prescriptions filled by the jail pharmacy (if the jail pharmacy doesn’t have an inmate’s prescriptions, they send out runners to snag them at a local pharmacy).
When a nurse visited Michael on his first night, he was in a slightly more peaceful mood. “My doctor has told me I could have a heart attack if I don’t have the right medication and I don’t take it on a regular basis,” Michael says, “so I had to balance the reality of my situation with my personal political beliefs.”
According to Michael, the nurse had retrieved his list of four prescriptions from his pharmacy and wanted to bring them to Michael. But Michael says he needed a sign that they were “honorable.” The nurse said he understood Michael’s apprehension and brought Michael just one of his prescriptions, the only one the pharmacy had in individual packaging to prove its contents. Michael swallowed it.
The next day, with a better sense that he could trust the medical staff, he took all four.
Although Corizon’s process for giving inmates medication reduces the risk of contraband drugs inside the jail, it leaves inmates unable to take both the medications they have on them and herbal treatments (e.g. milk thistle, which reduces the death rate for hepatitis C).
“The trust is gone,” Sierralupe says. “They already know that they are prisoners, and they don’t get to make any kind of decision at all. But to personally empower someone so that they can make their body feel healthier is one of the ways that you make somebody a better citizen.”
For others who live on the streets, the medical care they receive in jail is enough relief to validate it as an institution.
“The jail saved my life,” Bret says with zero irony. The homeless man says that when he was picked up by the police for probation violation in 2009 and dropped off at the jail, he could barely walk. He says that he had been having an excruciating breakout of staph infection on his shin for four months, and the rotted skin allowed blood to pour down his leg and into his shoe.
After he was processed and admitted into a general population room, he says, a nurse promptly treated the infection with antibiotic patches. The infection cleared up in three days.
According to Sierralupe, staph infections are common in Lane County’s homeless community: “We serve a population that wrestle with stress on a level that the average American can not possibly imagine.” And with stress, she says, comes a weakened immune system and increased risk of staph infection.
The routine of jail can take on a different character for independent-minded homeless inmates without immediate ailments like Marty, who has been in Eugene since 2013, is also homeless and has been through the jail seven times. His perspective on criticisms of the jail is simple: “People always say their police are the worst.”
Of all the jails Marty has served time in, he says, the Lane County jail is the best. He says he’s never had an unpleasant encounter with officers, who he describes as “politically correct,” and he has even enjoyed aspects of the jail, particularly the jail’s “hell of a good book selection,” which led him to discover the writings of Tom Robbins.
This is not to say Marty doesn’t need medical attention — he suffers from pancreatic cancer. Lacking better options, he has chosen to “run it out” and does not expect the jail to treat him. Care is expensive, he points out.
“Once people are on the street, it takes a couple of weeks, a month, maybe a year, and the streets just take them,” Sierralupe says. “You see a perpetual state of PTSD. And that itself is something that erodes spirit and makes people have behaviors that make it difficult for them to survive in a regular setting. That causes some damage to your psyche. So if you don’t have mental illness when you start, you’ll get there.”
According to the 2013 One Night Homeless Count, among the 1,751 homeless people documented in Lane County, 202 (or 11 percent) were described as “severely mentally ill.” Sierralupe, who participated in this year’s January count, views those numbers as “very, very low,” estimating that for every homeless person counted, there may have been two left uncounted.
As for the designation of mental illness, she says, it’s pure speculation — mental illness comes in many shades, making it difficult for police to identify. And, says Lt. Buckwald, jails have become the de facto mental health facilities.
Mental illness makes it more difficult for those suffering from it to communicate their struggles with law enforcement. As a result, testimony from mentally ill inmates is often extreme, and sometimes is available only through attorneys and other representatives. This was true in the case of Mark Kemp and in another case involving mental illness, that of Kelly Green II.
Attorney Regan points out that police have the authority to bring mentally ill people to the hospital to undergo psychiatric analyses. But many police officers, she says, “don’t have any interest in learning how to speak to a mentally ill person, or how to do crisis intervention.”
Crisis intervention, however, is precisely what the jail has tried to teach officers in the wake of the Kemp case. According to Lt. Buckwald, officers now are obligated to do eight hours of yearly training on how to deal with mentally ill inmates. The courses are based on the idea of crisis intervention, a method of instilling compassion, patience and empathy into officers during stressful contact with the mentally ill.
“We’re not talking about sympathy,” says Lance Couturier, former chief psychologist for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, and one of the authors of the materials Lane County Jail uses. “One of my mentally ill inmates said, ‘Sympathy is just a word between syphilis and shit.’ Cops and COs [corrections officers] seem to like that line. We’re just asking you to be able to put yourself in this guy’s situation, or this gal’s situation.”
One of the foundations of the course is being able to recognize the four major types of mental disorders — psychotic disorders, depressive disorders, behavior disorders and anxiety disorders — and learning how to responsibly interact with inmates who seem to be suffering from them.
For example, if an inmate is delusional, paranoid and possibly suffering from schizophrenia, the program’s technique is to ground the inmate in the here and now, to acknowledge his feelings and thoughts without buying into them.
“Correctional folks tend to be a pretty rough crew,” Couturier says. “They’re a pretty soft-hearted folk, they just hide it pretty well. With a lot of folks, CIT [Crisis Intervention Team] doesn’t necessarily give them new skills, but I think it gives legitimacy to a lot of skills and instincts they already had.”
Sometimes, however, handling mentally ill inmates is about more than empathy, such as in the case of Kelly Green. On Feb. 11, 2013, Green was arrested and booked into Lane County Jail on a misdemeanor warrant. According to court documents filed by Green’s attorney, the arresting officer noted that Green was a paranoid schizophrenic.
At a court appearance the next morning, the judge told him he would remain in jail, and Green subsequently ran headfirst into a concrete wall, crumpling to the floor with his head bleeding.
According to court documents, though Green claimed he was paralyzed, the two Corizon employees who arrived did not medically examine him, send for a physician or send Green to the hospital. Instead they roughly wheeled him back to the jail medical clinic where they sutured his head wound.
Limp and having lost control of his bowels, Green was then wheeled to a cell, where he was stripped of his clothes and left on a bunk lying naked in his feces. At 5:30 pm, Green was brought to the hospital and diagnosed with “a fractured neck, a spinal cord injury and resultant quadriplegia.”
Following surgery, Green lived as a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic until he died in December 2013.
Green’s parents and a personal representative for Green are demanding a trial by jury against Corizon, Lane County and several involved Corizon employees. The current complaint filed alleges that Corizon employees were “deliberately indifferent” to Green’s needs and to his Fourteenth Amendment rights, and that Corizon was “grossly negligent” and “recklessly indifferent” to Green’s civil rights.
One of Green’s attorneys, Elden Rosenthal, says that the trial will likely begin in June.
The homeless and mentally ill of Lane County are not alone in their struggle to stay out of jail — it is a documented national dilemma. According to a 2008 report in Psychiatric Services journal, inmates who had been homeless made up 15.3 percent of the U.S. jail population.
Similarly, in 2010, the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC) estimated that 16 percent of jail and prison inmates are afflicted with a serious mental illness, and in 2014 TAC reported that there were 10 times more seriously mentally ill people in jails and prisons than hospitals.
This comes at great cost. At Lane County Jail, according to the Lane County website, the combined costs of inmate housing, overhead costs, support services and booking operations is $234 per day for every inmate, footed by citizens of Lane County.
“It’s not good for our business-owning citizens to think of the poor as being criminals, and the place that you put the poor is the jail,” Sierralupe says. “And it’s certainly not good for the people who are constantly being incarcerated. That’s a very expensive fix for the suffering that we see in our community.”
Sierralupe says she thinks that, like other cycles that homeless and mentally ill fall into — addiction, unemployment, persecution by law enforcement — cyclical incarceration could be addressed by Housing First, a tactic of giving people the stability to build their lives up again by providing them with free housing.
There is already an effective model for Housing First in Eugene in the form of Opportunity Village, which, according to founding member Andrew Heben, consists of 30 tiny homes constructed at a cost of about $1,000 to $2,000 each. The entire site costs about $100,000 to buy and build, which amounts to a cost of about $3,333 per house.
To put this in perspective, a homeless or mentally ill person would have to spend 14 days in the Lane County jail before the stay would cost more than the entire price of an Opportunity Village tiny home.
“There’s no argument against it,” says Chad Kautzer, assistant professor of philosophy, director of the Social Justice minor at University of Colorado Denver and activist on homelessness. “There’s only a moral argument, and it’s a bad moral argument.”
This moral argument, Kautzer says, is the assumption that people with needs are morally at fault for their situation, which is extremely problematic: “From recessions where people lose their jobs, to cutbacks in social services, to investment bubbles that out-price large portions of the population [so that] they can’t afford housing — all these things are beyond the control of individuals.” Similarly, Kautzer says, mentally ill people are not blamed for their conditions, but are often blamed for their symptoms. In Kautzer’s home of Colorado, according to a recent The New Yorker article, the state is now saving $26,000 per year for every homeless person it houses.
However, the most important argument for Housing First is the reality of the alternative — a life tipping between a struggle to survive and time in jail.
“If I could get into rehab right now, I would not be homeless,” Tommy says. “I’d be in rehab. But there’s a three-month waiting list, I think. I don’t really feel like I need rehab to quit doing drugs, I just need somewhere to live to quit doing drugs. But as long as I’m out here and I’m cold and lonely and fucking miserable, I’m going to shoot heroin every day because it makes me feel better.”
*EW protects the identities of people who fear possible retribution.