Inmates at a downtown Portland, Ore., jail have complained about tear gas flowing into their cells through the ventilation system this week, making it difficult to breathe as protesters and federal agents continue to engage in nightly confrontations nearby.
Defense lawyers said female inmates at the Multnomah County Justice Center awoke twice this week to gas seeping into their cells, prompting some to hit panic buttons, Oregon Public Defender Lisa Hay told Fox News. In addition to breathing problems, the women experienced coughing and a stinging feeling in their eyes, she said.
The gas was so strong, Hay explained, that some of the inmates put their mouths at the base of their cell doors in an effort to breathe fresh air. She said one inmate was reportedly taken to a hospital.
“It was a terrible mistake to allow this chemical assault to happen on Monday night, but what is worse is that it happened again,” Hay said.
The incidents come as federal agents positioned at the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse near the Justice Center continue to clash with protesters almost nightly. The protests against police brutality and racial injustice have at times turned violent, authorities say, prompting the use of tear gas and other crowd control tools.
The agents were sent to Portland by President Trump in an effort to quell protect federal property and prevent any violence.
The courthouse has been the scene of much of the unrest. In recent days, some protesters were seen hurling flaming debris over a fence adjacent to the federal property and attempting to tear it down and set it ablaze.
To mitigate the effects of the tear gas, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday decided to “regularly close air dampers” from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. The method, called “return air mode,” is intended to reduce the impact of poor air quality inside the facility, which currently houses 254 adult inmates, sheriff’s spokesman Chris Liedle told Fox News.
“While in 100 percent return air mode, the building’s airflow is recirculated through a two-step filtration series before reentering the space that is served,” he said. “Under normal operations, air is drawn from the outside-in.”
Before Tuesday, the dampers were closed only when necessary.
The lack of ventilation has raised concerns for Hay, given the potential spread of the coronavirus that has ravaged correctional facilities across the country: at least 70,000 people in prison have tested positive for COVID-19, according to data compiled by The Marshall Project. She called it unsafe for the jail to stop fresh air circulation in the midst of a global pandemic.
“Detainees at MDCC are under the government’s care and deserve to be treated humanely,” she said.
Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese said his agency is committed to caring for inmates in its custody.
“We care deeply for the adults in custody and have a legal and moral obligation to protect them, as well as dozens of corrections deputies and county staff that provide rehabilitation, support and health services around the clock,” Sheriff Mike Reese said in a statement to Fox News.
“Explosions from commercial grade fireworks, smoke, bright lights, lasers and tear gas continue to have significant impacts on the adults in custody and our staff,” he added. “The Justice Center is much more than a police station, it is a small city with hundreds of people inside. We ask everyone to do their part to help keep those in the building safe and healthy.”