Disability rights advocates believe the technique used by Sheriff MPs to hold back Alexander Jimenez, a Warrenton man who died in police custody in Clatsop County Jail in April, increased his risk of death.
Jimenez, 34, was one of 10 Oregon prison deaths investigated by Disability Rights Oregon last year. A report released Monday by the Portland-based nonprofit found that the deaths were preventable and that “prison conditions put people with disabilities at risk of fatal harm.”
Jimenez, who had mental health problems and substance abuse, died on April 17 after being arrested for disorderly behavior and resisting arrest after taking to the streets in downtown Warrenton.
Warrenton Police used a taser to subdue Jimenez during the arrest. He was taken to the Columbia Memorial Hospital in Astoria, where he was given medical clearance by a doctor in the back of the police SUV before he was taken to jail.
At Sally Port in prison, several MPs pulled Jimenez, who was handcuffed, out of the police SUV, pressed him face down on the floor, and placed spit hoods over his head.
Several MPs and officials kneeled on him or held him while they put on ankle and leg rests. During the several minutes of fighting, MPs noticed that blood was coming from Jimenez’s mouth and that he had passed out. He was taken back to the hospital where he died.
The state coroner ruled that the cause of death for Jimenez was the toxic effects of methamphetamine and the mode of death was accidental. Fatty liver disease and the use of the taser were listed as other significant conditions.
The forensic examination did not reveal any injuries from the prison fighting that could have caused the death.
District Attorney Ron Brown stated that Warrenton police likely had reason to arrest Jimenez and that “at no point has excessive force been used.”
Disability Rights Oregon and others who have reviewed Jimenez’s death have called for changes.
“This life-threatening restraint technique is known as ‘vulnerable restraint’ and is banned in many schools and clinics for the same reasons that it should be banned in the criminal justice system. It is a direct contributor to shortness of breath and dramatically increases the risk of death, ”said the Disability Rights Oregon report of the technique used to hold Jimenez in prison.
“Risks are increased when combined with other factors that are prevalent in prisons, such as poisoning, mental health symptoms, restlessness, obesity, and shortness of breath.”
Liz Reetz, a public-interest law scholar at Stanford Law School who works with Disability Rights Oregon’s Mental Health Rights Project, said the technique was dangerous even in cases where people are healthy.
“Unfortunately for Alex Jimenez, he was too sick to be booked into jail at the time of his admission,” Reetz said.
Disability Rights Oregon made recommendations to the prison in response to Jimenez’s death, urging Oregon to ban vulnerable restraint and similar restraint techniques.
Sheriff Matt Phillips said he works with Disability Rights Oregon. The sheriff said in a statement that Jimenez’s death “deeply shook my staff and led staff to seek advice.
“As a community, we need to be able to quickly connect people with mental illness to treatment when they need it, to avoid arrest and start criminal proceedings. Timely access to care benefits individuals in crisis and helps the community as a whole to use its resources more effectively.
“Smaller rural communities in particular lack adequate psychiatric services. Bigger investments in local mental health care will reduce arrests and strengthen our communities. People with mental illness should be able to meet their most basic health needs in the community. “
Phillips told The Astorian that he had implemented several recommendations from Disability Rights Oregon, including authorizing prison staff to refuse to admit those with agitated delirium, mental health crisis, or acute poisoning.
The sheriff said Clatsop County implemented a pre-trial release policy in 2017 that reduced the prison’s population.
“In Mr. Jimenez’s case, he would have been detained only to sobriety,” said Phillips. “It would have been much better for him to be sober in the hospital.”
Phillips said he worked with Columbia Memorial to organize monthly meetings to discuss law enforcement and emergency room interactions and expectations.
“You are no longer allowed to look for prison evictions in the back seat of a car,” said the sheriff. “The arrested person must be consulted for an assessment.”
Disability Rights Oregon conducted the investigation in response to 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting reporting of prison deaths in Oregon and Washington, as well as a report from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.
Disability Rights Oregon is investigating Jimenez’s death as well as a suicide by hanging that occurred in Clatsop County Jail in April.
The other deaths occurred in prisons in Deschutes, Jackson, Klamath, Marion and Polk counties, as well as in the Springfield Municipal Jail and in the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facilities detention center at The Dalles.
“We reviewed this information in the hopes of identifying cases that were genuinely problematic and problematic independently of one another that might warrant further investigation, and also to examine what patterns we are seeing – how we can advocate for system-level changes that can do some prevent these deaths, ”said Reetz. “Mainly because so many happened in a year when prison populations fell significantly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Lack of resources
The Astorian received the Oregon State Police investigative report into Jimenez’s death and posted a story of the results in August.
The newspaper also covered several other incidents in 2020 when police were called on situations involving people in a mental health crisis.
In December, an Astoria woman was shot dead by an Oregon State Police officer near Sunset Beach after entering a house and later climbing a roof with a gun.
Alaina Burns, 31, had been arrested a few days earlier for second-degree burglary, second-degree theft and first-degree criminal accident. She was booked in the county jail and released the same day for coronavirus precautions.
An investigation into Burns’ death is ongoing.
A man who described himself as close to Burns’ family said she was struggling with drug addiction and mental illness and her partner tried to get her help. He said he believed the system had failed her and that she should have been held on the assumption that she was a danger to herself and others.
Oregon’s lack of federal and state funding for mental health and substance abuse treatment, as well as Oregon’s high threshold for civil engagement, has frustrated police, mental health providers, and people and their families.
In recent years, The Astorian has documented treatment gaps that put some of the most vulnerable people on the north coast at risk of injury.
The police often react to the same people in crisis repeatedly. Safe mental health beds do not exist in Clatsop County. The officers have the option of taking people who are drunk and in crisis to the emergency room or hospital jail.
A mobile crisis team from Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare, the county mental health provider, is available to assist the police and sheriff officials with calls involving people in crisis. However, a lack of funding and resources has made the service not a more effective tool.
In January Gearhart Police Chief Jeff Bowman announced that his officers will not be first responders to mental health calls unless there is an imminent risk of physical harm to others. The police chief said the decision was in response to a police fatal shooting of a man in Texas in a mental crisis. He said he hoped others in Oregon would take up the issue, but realized that he is “just a person who does red tape.”
“The 10 people who died in Oregon prisons in 2020 confirm what DRO generally knows about the population of people incarcerated in county jails: most face lowly charges related to behavioral health needs, poverty and difficult living conditions.” according to the Disability Rights Oregon report said. “The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission claims that prisons have become the standard case management system for repeat, low-ranking offenders who are often homeless, frequently suffering from substance abuse disorders, and frequently having mental health problems, traumatic brain injury, or other chronic health problems.”
“The prosecution and detention of people with minor charges exposes them to unnecessarily harmful conditions in prisons. This is especially true for people with disabilities or complex health needs.
“The criminalization of behavioral disorders exacerbates existing symptoms, adds additional trauma and further disrupts progress in housing, services and other stabilizing benefits in the community,” the report said. “Failure to adequately fund effective community-based mental health systems has directly contributed to jail and prison rather than recovery and care for people with disabilities in need of treatment.”
Comments are closed.