Examination of the discipline process found concerns about the use of isolation, disproportionate treatment of Black adults in custody, and inconsistent application of the rules by some deputies

The Sheriff’s Office procedures establish written rules and a disciplinary system they said serves to protect the safety of staff, the public, and adults in custody. According to the National Institute of Corrections, adults in custody need to know and understand the rules, the rules must be applied consistently and fairly, and the process must be perceived as being fair – even when individuals disagree about specific incidents.

The Sheriff’s Office has procedures in place for a system of rules and discipline that follow state and national guidelines, but the data show that deputies issued misconduct citations disproportionately and inconsistently. This is important because the penalty for breaking rules frequently involves some level of isolation that can be harmful to individuals and has been shown to have limited effectiveness. 

The Sheriff's Office has a variety of sanction options, but primarily used isolation

Sheriff’s Office hearings officers have a range of penalties for individuals who receive a misconduct citation, such as removal from a job in the jail, the loss of privileges, or fines. But during our three-year review period, 82% of the time adults who were sanctioned received an isolation sanction. Additionally, isolation was the most common type of punishment for nearly every type of violation, from disruptive behavior to violence.

Isolation was the primary method of discipline

Source: Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office data for July 1, 2018 through June 30, 2021. Data analyzed by Multnomah County Auditor’s Office staff. The “Other” violation category includes activities such as possessing contraband, being in an unauthorized area, giving false information, abusing medication, and stealing.

Isolation involves significantly reducing walk time outside the cell and a reduction of visitors. There is a spectrum of isolation that ranges from 15 to 60 minutes outside of the cell per day. We primarily refer to this range of types by using the word isolation as an umbrella term. We did this because each type of isolation involves isolating the adult in custody from others.  About one out of every 10 people housed in jail spends time in isolation. The average isolation sanction was for 12 days, with some serving up to 60 days in a row. Additionally, a few people have multiple misconduct citations and frequently spend time in and out of isolation, with some spending more than six months in isolation in total.

Isolation of this type, where interactions with others were limited to one hour a day or less, has been proven to be harmful. Moreover, isolation as a disciplinary mechanism has been called into question. For example, the State of Washington recently ended the use of isolation as punishment because it has not been effective in stopping bad behavior. The National Commission on Corrections Healthcare called prolonged social isolation antithetical to the goals of rehabilitation and social integration and that even those without a prior history of mental health conditions may experience a deterioration in mental health.

Procedures were generally consistent with standards

We found that Sheriff’s Office rules and discipline processes were generally consistent with those recommended by the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association and the National Institute of Corrections. The Sheriff’s Office procedures state that they are intended to encourage staff to resolve minor violations informally. The Sheriff’s Office also uses a research-supported direct supervision model in its jails where staff interact continuously with adults in custody within their housing units where they can identify problems at early stages.

Application of procedures was disproportionate and inconsistent

It’s in the application of these procedures that the Sheriff’s Office diverges from what we would expect. In its 2016 review of the Sheriff’s Office’s use of force policies and training, the National Institute of Corrections reported that the number of misconduct citations and hearings at the Multnomah County jails appeared to be high for jails of their size, and suggested a review of discipline data and the discipline process. The Sheriff’s Office has not done this review.

For our three-year review period, we conducted analyses of discipline data and found that misconduct citations were handed out disproportionately to Black adults in custody. We found the difference to be statistically significant, meaning they were not likely the result of chance.  We accounted for individual differences such as length of time in jail, age, and gender. We did not assess for statistical differences based on the severity of the offense because the literature shows that this was not predictive of behavior in jail. We did not look at prior history of incarceration since we lacked access to this data for other jurisdictions. For all of our statistical analyses, we used the strictest standard for determining whether differences were statistically significant– in this case, only differences for Black adults in custody were statistically significant.

Corrections staff gave misconduct citations at a higher rate to Black adults in custody
Number of misconduct citations per 100 people housed in jail

Source: Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office data for July 1, 2018 through June 30, 2021. Data analyzed by Multnomah County Auditor’s Office staff. Differences for Black and African American adults in custody were statistically significant, but not for other races.

In another analysis, we found that most corrections staff followed procedures in deciding when to issue misconduct citations, but there were significant outliers. There was a small number of corrections staff members who issued misconduct citations at much higher rates than their peers. We calculated the average amount of misconduct citations per hour worked based on shift and location. Using this, we predicted the amount of citations that each corrections staff would issue based on their hours worked, shift, and location. Eleven staff (about 2% of the total) stood out because they issued far more misconduct citations than expected. Race did not appear to be a factor.  For example, they did not issue misconduct citations to Black adults in custody at a higher rate than other deputies.  We reported our findings to the Sheriff’s Office to enable management to take any necessary training and disciplinary actions.

Eleven corrections staff issued 2.6 times more misconduct citations than predicted

Source: Data from Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office and analyzed by the Multnomah County Auditor’s Office. For each shift and location, we determined the average number of times staff issued misconduct citations per hour worked. Eleven employees issued far more misconduct citations than expected based on their hours worked, shift, and location.

We surveyed all adults in custody in June 2021. Data from our survey of adults in custody appeared to back up the discipline data. We found the Sheriff’s Office had clear rules and made them accessible and available to adults in custody. When we surveyed individuals housed in the jails, about 80% reported that they knew the rules. We also asked individuals, “When people break the rules, do corrections deputies treat them fairly?” Only 28% of Black adults in custody said “most of the time,” whereas 37% of all other adults in custody chose “most of the time.”

Additional training could reduce use of misconduct citations or at least make them more consistently applied

Training can help reduce the need for misconduct citations and sanctions. The National Institute of Corrections also cited the value of interpersonal communication and/or cultural diversity training in diffusing difficult situations in jails. The Sheriff’s Office training program includes de-escalation training, training on the impact of implicit and explicit bias, and trauma informed responses; however, the training was not specifically focused on race or cultural competency.

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