New Facility May Improve Treatment of Mentally-Ill Inmates

A recent article in The Oregonian documented efforts by Disability Rights Oregon to convince “the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office to transfer jail inmates undergoing mental health crises to the city’s new emergency psychiatric care center if needed.” As the article outlines, the Northeast Portland facility recently opened, offering “a long-awaited alternative to having police take people in crisis to regular hospital ERs.”

As the newspaper reports “a no-guns policy and other logistics make the request a tough sell.” What it does not lay out, however, is an especially strong legal argument for using the Unity Center for Behavioral Health: prisoners’ rights.

As I have written in other contexts, one of the most important legal tools for ensuring that people held in custody are treated in a humane way that respects their rights is 42 USC 1983. This allows individuals to sue when the government deprives them of any of the “rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” In plain English: it offers a mechanism for people who have been mistreated by government at any level (local, state, federal) to have their day in court and obtain justice.

What are known in the legal world as “1983” cases represent a developing body of law focused on the treatment of prisoners and other persons in custody. One can argue that law enforcement ought to be receptive to this, especially where people in need of psychiatric care are concerned.

As The Oregonian notes, the Unity Center was built to address a widely-recognized need in our community. The article quotes a representative of Disability Rights Oregon saying that “the jail cannot be a treatment and therapeutic environment. Indeed, the Center’s opening comes only a few months after the group “released a scathing report about the conditions in the downtown jail for inmates suffering from mental illness.”

An important point to make here is that once the government takes someone into custody it assumes legal responsibility for that person’s mental as well as physical well-being. Law enforcement should want to take people in need of mental health services to Unity or similar facilities not only for the good of the prisoners/patients but to help guarantee that the city or county are doing their duty by these people as citizens. Failing to do so is both potentially cruel and exposes the government to potential legal liability.

As a Portland attorney I have always focused my practice on protecting individual rights and freedoms. According to The Oregonian one of the issues separating the Multnomah Sheriff’s Department and the Unity Center’s staff is the question of which parts of the facility officers will be allowed to enter while carrying firearms. Surely this is an issue that can be resolved for the greater good of both our community and for the individuals who need Unity’s services but who are also subject to the authority of law enforcement officials when they are brought there.


The Oregonian: Advocates urge county to take jail inmates in crisis to new psychiatric ER

Disability Rights Oregon Homepage

Legal Information Institute: 42 USC 1983


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