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Matthew D. Kaplan

A California newspaper’s investigation of deaths in county jails is shining a light on the issue of both for-profit prisons and outsourced prison healthcare. An investigation by the Redding Record-Searchlight found that “from 2005 to 2019, about 1,960 people died in the custody of California county jails.” Even granted the state’s immense size this is a shocking figure, one that highlights the importance of civil rights laws protecting even an unpopular group such as prisoners.

The figures compiled by the Record-Searchlight work out to roughly 130 jail deaths per year. Last year an investigation by Oregon Public Broadcasting put the 2018 figure for Oregon and Washington combined at 39, and noted that jail deaths have been trending upwards over the last decade. When you adjust for population (about 12 million for our two states versus just under 40 million for California) the overall mortality rate is similar.

I have written about jail deaths here in Oregon before. Both here and in the Record-Searchlight’s reporting one name keeps turning up. Wellpath is a Tennessee-based company which describes itself as “the premier provider of localized, high-quality, compassionate care to vulnerable patients in challenging clinical environments.” In ordinary English that means they are a private, for-profit, health-care company that specializes in offering care for prisoners. The newspaper quotes a psychologist who consults on prison staff training and prison conditions saying that for-profit companies like Wellpath do “an absolutely awful job.”

Few would disagree that today’s cars are safer than cars built in 1967. Still, it is astonishing to discover that a key safety standard applied to virtually every vehicle on America’s roads has not been updated in all that time. The feature is seatback strength, and, as a recent article in The Oregonian’s business section outlines, the standard by which the government assesses it has not changed in 53 years.

Seatback strength is something few car buyers think about. But even if they did, fewer still are in any position to assess it. Auto manufacturers assure customers that car seats meet or exceed all federal safety requirements, without adding that the requirements themselves are so out of date “that a lawn chair could pass it” according to the consumer advocacy organization FairWarning, which authored The Oregonian article.

The organization says engineers who have studied the issue regard the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) standards for car seats as “laughably weak… In actual rear-end collisions, the seat pushing forward against the weight of a person in the front seat can cause the seat to collapse, sometimes throwing the driver or passenger head-first into the back or out of the rear window, and also endangering anyone in the back seat.”

The death of a 13-year-old boy in a boating accident on Hagg Lake in Washington County has highlighted a number of safety issues we all need to keep in mind during this holiday weekend and in the coming weeks before fall sets in.

According to The Oregonian, the boy died “after he was hit by a motorboat.” A 21-year-old man “was arrested and is facing charges of boating under the influence, second-degree manslaughter and recklessly endangering another person.” The newspaper quotes a Washington County sheriff’s spokesman saying that he was not sure whether the boy was swimming or wading at the time he was struck, but that it is clear the fatal incident occurred “not very far off the shore.”

Terrible tragedies like this always raise a significant number of legal issues. A few of those are touched on by The Oregonian, such as reckless endangerment and BUI (the boating equivalent of DUI), which is specifically governed by ORS 830.325. This statute is far more general than the better known ones governing DUI. A boater violates it by simply operating the boat “under the influence of an intoxicating liquor, cannabis, an inhalant or controlled substance.” The law does not set a legal threshold for “influence”. Related sections explicitly forbid reckless boating (ORS 830.315) and, perhaps significantly, extend liability for reckless activity to the boat’s owner (ORS 830.330).

Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has levied $31,000 in fines on two contractors whose irresponsible conduct led to the deaths of two workers at a music festival in Happy Valley in the summer of 2019, according to The Oregonian.

The paper reports that the two men “were up in a boom lift taking down a shade installation (when) the lift, which was on an incline, tilted and fell.” Both were wearing safety gear, the paper reports, but that did little to help them considering the shockingly long list of standard precautions that their employers failed to take.

“OSHA said two alarm devices on the boom lift had been disabled, one of which would have alerted users that the machine was on uneven terrain. The other would have stopped the platform from moving upward if an employee became pinned between the platform and something overhead. Each company was fined $12,000 for disabling the alarms,” according to the newspaper. One of the two companies was given an additional fine “for not following the instructions provided by the boom lift manufacturer – including not raising the lift while on an uneven surface, maintaining a firm footing on the platform’s floor at all times and not putting the lift in a raised position while the counterweight, used for balance, was on the downward side of the slope.”

Just seven months ago the governor signed a new law designed to improve safety at daycare facilities around Oregon. Yet shortly after New Year’s “Oregon child care regulators imposed first-of-their-kind restrictions… on a Hillsboro day care where an infant died January 6,” according to reporting by The Oregonian. Calling the facility a “serious danger to the health and safety of children… regulators ordered the 24/7 provider to watch over children who are asleep at all times and to increase staffing beyond the baseline required by law.” The facility will also have to stop accepting children under the age of two.

These are the first penalties imposed under the new law, so one might look at them as a sign that the new measures are working. Yet the fact that they were only imposed after a child had died should be cause for concern throughout Oregon. Abuse and neglect are subject to mandatory reporting requirements for many occupations in our state, including anyone working at a daycare center. If the violations of state law were this serious one has to wonder why they were never reported in the days and weeks before the baby died, and also why it took the state more than two weeks after the baby’s death to sanction the center.

Even after penalties have been imposed by the state a tragedy such as this should prompt the bereaved family to consider what remedies the court system can offer. In civil law there are a number of potential ways to probe more deeply into what happened in Hillsboro and to consider who should be held accountable. These could include a wrongful death action under ORS 30.020. The problems identified by the state in sanctioning the daycare center on their face make a case for a claim under ORS 163.545 (Child Neglect in the Second Degree).

The Pendleton-based East Oregonian began the New Year with an article that offered a useful reminder both of the danger large trucks pose on Oregon and Washington’s roads – especially in rural areas – and of what the government is trying to do to mitigate the problem.

The Salem-datelined piece focused on truck inspections, which it describes as “the primary tool for preventing accidents that disrupt Oregon’s highways, hospitalize thousands and leave hundreds dead each year.” Perhaps surprisingly for some readers, the newspaper draws a connection between truck safety and the Vision Zero program that has become familiar in Portland and numerous other cities around the country.

In the popular mind Vision Zero is usually associated with pedestrian safety. Obviously large trucks are a part of that, but the broader goal of the program has always been to eliminate traffic deaths completely. A point the East Oregonian makes convincingly is that doing this includes taking a close look at big rigs in rural parts of the state, not just at cars and buses in cities.

Last week the retired sheriff of Norfolk, Virginia was arrested and charged with numerous counts of bribery, according to The Washington Post. The newspaper reports Robert McCabe is accused “of taking cash, a loan, travel, gifts and campaign contributions from contractors providing food and medical care at the city jail” over the course nearly a quarter-century as the county’s chief law enforcement officer.

Along with the former sheriff, the founder of a Tennessee company that is part of the private prison and prison services industry was also arrested. The Post reports the Norfolk contract for prison medical services “was worth more than $3 million a year” and the company in question, Correct Care Solutions (now known as Wellpath), “continues to provide medical care at the Norfolk jail.” In exchange for the bribes the sheriff allegedly negotiated with Correct Care’s founder outside normal channels “and instructed employees to give his company inside information on potential contracts, including confidential bids from competitors”

This case caught my eye for two reasons. First, it is yet another example of what is wrong with our system of contracting prison management out to private corporations. Prisons are an unpleasant part of life, but they are also a public trust. It is essential that they be run in both a humane and accountable way, something that is fundamentally at odds with placing management or essential services – such as medical care – in the hands of companies primarily interested in making profits.

A recent article in the Salem Statesman-Journal draws attention to infant deaths, an area where decades of government and private education efforts have both shown dramatic progress and encountered stubborn resistance.

The paper notes that “every year, about 40 babies in Oregon go to sleep and never wake up… deaths can be traced to negligence, substance abuse and unsafe sleep practices. But deaths from dangerous sleeping arrangements – one of the leading causes of infant mortality in Oregon – are preventable.”

The good news is that compared to the rest of the nation Oregon’s infant death rate is relatively low. A chart on the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) website (see link below) places both Oregon and Washington in the second-lowest tier for infant deaths nationwide, between 72.1 and 86.8 per 100,000 live births from 2013 to 2017. That puts both states below the national average of 100.5 per 100,000 (the lowest rates are in Vermont and Washington DC, both at 37.4; Alabama had the highest rate at 189.2)

An incident in Colorado, recently recounted by The Oregonian, offers striking insight into the culture of neglect in our prisons and the important role our courts must play in ensuring justice is done.

On the night of July 31, 2018, the newspaper reports, an inmate at a county jail in Denver “gave birth to her son alone in her cell without medical supervision or treatment, despite repeatedly telling the jail’s staff that she was having contractions, according to a federal lawsuit.” The paper reports that the entire incident was “captured on surveillance video.” Yet, astonishingly, “an internal investigation by the Denver Sheriff’s Department cleared its deputies of wrongdoing.”

To call this appalling is an understatement. As I noted in a blog last March, an 8-1 Supreme court ruling dating all the way back to 1976 (Estelle v Gamble) clearly established the right of prisoners to adequate medical care. The court wrote that “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners” falls under the constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The horrific death of a cyclist in New York City earlier this month – a moment captured on video – has brought attention to the way police there and in many other parts of the country treat fatalities brought about by reckless driving.

The New York Times reports that an 18-year-old man has been arrested and charged with manslaughter in the death of a 52-year-old cyclist in Brooklyn earlier this month. Barreling through a red light at high speed, the driver slammed into an SUV that was passing legally through the intersection. The force of the impact flung the SUV caddy-corner across the intersection directly into a cyclist who was patiently waiting for the red light to change on the opposite corner. The entire incident was captured on a dashcam video by another car waiting at the corner where the bike rider died. (Note: the first paragraph of The New York Times story below includes a link to the video. Be warned that it is extremely graphic and unsettling)

The newspaper reports that “bicycle advocates want stronger laws, as well as a cultural change similar to the one around drunken driving.” The question, at its root, is when reckless or negligent behavior crosses the line into criminality. The paper notes that “drivers who cause fatalities are almost never criminally charged, unless there are aggravating circumstances… running a red light is almost never considered reckless driving” even in a case like this where doing so leads to someone’s death.

50 SW Pine St 3rd Floor Portland, OR 97204 Telephone: (503) 226-3844 Fax: (503) 943-6670 Email: matthew@mdkaplanlaw.com
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