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Diabetic Inmate, Fearing Coronavirus, Sues Oregon’s Columbia County Jail

— March 27, 2020

The class action demands that Columbia County Jail do more to ensure its most vulnerable inmates are better protected from a potential COVID outbreak.

A diabetic man held in Oregon’s Columbia County Jail is filing a class action against the facility and its management, claiming the detention center hasn’t done enough to prevent the spread of novel coronavirus.

According to The Portland Mercury, the lawsuit was filed on behalf of 44-year old Michael Thompson by Portland-area attorneys Juan Chavez and David Sugarman. In the complaint, they state that Columbia County has taken few precautions to ensure inmates’ health and well-being.

“Across the world, country, and Oregon, extraordinary and unprecedented measures affecting every aspect of life are being taken in the name of protecting people from this pandemic,” the lawsuit says. “Columbia County […] cannot leave people in jails to suffer and die.”

Thompson, adds the Mercury, was booked into Columbia County Jail near St. Helens at the beginning of March. There, he was held on a series of assault and burglary charges, with bail set at nearly $10,000.

Insulin. Image via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Unable to pay bail—a sum he said wasn’t surmountable in a text message to attorneys—Thompson was forced to away trial in conditions he claims are cramped and generally unsanitary. “Inmates,” says the lawsuit, “sleep in four-person cells on two sets of bunk beds… They rarely spend time at a distance further than six feet from each other.”

Furthermore, Thompson alleges that Columbia County corrections staff haven’t taken any action to clean the jail—and that inmates themselves have only limited access to cleaning supplies.

Thompson, as a middle-aged man with diabetes, is at an elevated risk for contracting a serious case of novel coronavirus. While most cases in the United States and around the world have been mild—entailing only a mild cough, fever, or sore throat–the disease has presented far more aggressively in older adults and those with pre-existing medical conditions.

The lawsuit, notes the Mercury, names Columbia County Sheriff Brian Pixley and Lieutenant Brook McDowell as defendants. The suit seemingly suggests that inaction against coronavirus is a constitutional violation, insofar as it subjects inmates to the possibility of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The complaint, broadly, demands that Columbia County Jail make accommodations so that inmates have reasonable space to practice social distancing. It’s also demanding medical health concessions, ranging from cleaning supplies to coronavirus test kits and waived medical fees.

Chavez, appearing to pre-empt criticism of preferential treatment for prisoners, said the public should bear in mind that infections begun in prison are unlikely to stay there.

“It’s important to remember, as every Oregonian acts to prevent the spread of the disease, that an outbreak in a jail or prison is unlikely to stay there,” Chavez said. “Corrections officers, staff, and others entering and leaving these facilities all have the capacity to take COVID-19 out into the wider community.

“We are all only as safe as the most vulnerable among us.”


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