Inadequate Supervision of Oregon Detainees and Inmates and the Recent Spike of Suicide and Drug Overdose Deaths

Ten people died while in custody at the Multnomah County Jail in 2022 and 2023, as compared to zero deaths in the preceding two years. Too many times, preventable deaths – whether here locally or elsewhere – are the result of protocols not being followed or people otherwise not doing their jobs. When that kind of failure leads to an inmate or detainee’s death, that could represent a federal civil rights violation. For the families of those inmates/detainees, restorative justice may be available by pursuing legal action, aided by representation from an experienced Oregon civil rights lawyer.

One of those detainees who died in the Multnomah County Jail in 2022 was Stephen Murphy, who was awaiting trial on federal drug charges. At the time a fellow inmate found him unresponsive, the man was suffering from severe internal bleeding. A coroner’s autopsy discovered that the detainee had a tumor in his liver that had burst.

The sheriff’s department initially listed Murphy’s cause of death as “natural causes,” but later changed it to “overdose.” Willamette Week reported that Murphy had 7.4 ng/ml of fentanyl in his blood when he died. (The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Chief Medical Examiner considers 3 ng/ml or more enough to list overdose as a patient’s cause of death, in the absence of any other diseases.)

One problem potentially at issue in Murphy’s death, based on this month’s OregonLive report, was a lack of sufficient supervision. A new deputy, who was working alone, logged checks of all her inmates – including Murphy – at 3:30 p.m., 4:15 p.m., 4:40 p.m., 5:05 p.m., and 5:35 p.m. However, a sheriff’s detective reviewed the jail’s video footage and found that the deputy had not done all those checks. The deputy later conceded that she failed to perform the last two checks she listed on her logbook. That meant that Murphy had been unsupervised for roughly 80 minutes by the time the fellow inmate first discovered his unresponsive state at 6:02 p.m.

Insufficient Supervision and Federal Civil Rights Lawsuits

Inadequate supervision of detainees and inmates often plays a major role in two common causes of jail deaths – drug overdoses and suicides.

The law permits the family of an inmate or detainee who died by suicide while behind bars to pursue a civil rights lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983. To win a Section 1983 case arising from a suicide, the family must demonstrate to the court that the inmate/detainee suffered a serious deprivation. That deprivation must have exposed the incarcerated person to a “substantial risk of serious harm” and the responsible parties must have displayed a “deliberate indifference” to the inmate/detainee’s mental health needs and the risks.

Providing incarcerated individuals with inadequate supervision can satisfy those elements. In 2013, the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals allowed a mother to pursue a civil rights case based on her son’s suicide. In that lawsuit, the court concluded that removing all floor officers for more than three hours in the middle of the day for a staff meeting potentially “created an objectively substantial risk of harm to the unsupervised inmates” and represented deliberate indifference to the danger this lack of supervision posed to inmates with mental health issues, such as the woman’s son (who died after he hung himself inside his cell.)

Insufficient supervision can also be an essential factor in a civil rights case that arises from a drug overdose. For example, a case, founded on the “failure to protect” theory of liability, might allege that the jail’s staff knew about the widespread availability – and rampant use – of fentanyl inside the facility, that they ignored this information, and that their actions (or inaction) displayed a deliberate indifference toward the dangers of failing to curb fentanyl inside the jail.

Murphy “had a history of drug-related felony convictions dating back 20 years,” according to OregonLive. An inmate whose fentanyl overdose triggered a civil rights case that went all the way to the federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2022 was incarcerated for a felony sex crime. It can be all too easy to look at incarcerated people like these men and turn a blind eye to the harm they endured as a result of jail workers, administrators, or contractors failing to do their jobs.

The law doesn’t work that way. The U.S. Supreme Court stated in 1974 that a “prisoner is not wholly stripped of constitutional protections when he is imprisoned for a crime. There is no iron curtain drawn between the Constitution and the prisons of this country.” If your loved one has suffered a serious or fatal injury because someone inside the jail failed to fulfill the duties of their role, that could be a violation of his/her civil rights. If you believe you have such a claim, the knowledgeable Oregon civil rights attorneys at Kaplan Law LLC can help. Our team’s extensive experience equips us to provide you with both reliable, experience-driven advice and, when necessary, effective litigation techniques and solutions. Call us today at (503) 226-3844 or contact us online to set up your free consultation.

50 SW Pine St 3rd Floor Portland, OR 97204 Telephone: (503) 226-3844 Fax: (503) 943-6670 Email:
map image