Portland Jailblazers
In Oregon, criminals run free while a prison stands empty.

Thursday, August 4, 2005 12:01 a.m.

PORTLAND, Ore.--Last month, Multnomah County Sheriff Bernie Giusto gritted his teeth and released 391 inmates from the county jail, including legions of drug dealers, drunk drivers, burglars, car prowlers, identity thieves, check forgers and assorted rip-off artists.

This spectacle has become numbingly familiar in Portland, a laid-back city that is suffering from an acute shortage of jail beds, a surge in property crimes, and a spike in methamphetamine use that led the state Legislature this week to pass a law requiring a doctor's prescription for cold and allergy medicines that could be used to make "meth." So far this year, Sheriff Giusto has sprung more than 2,700 inmates--and a town that prides itself on its progressive image is confronting a crisis in public safety.

"The criminal justice system is teetering on the edge of collapse," fumes Mr. Giusto, whose own car was recently broken into in a lot across from his office, beneath a sign reading "Sheriff's Patrol."

What makes the sheriff's predicament particularly maddening is that a few miles away, on the north side of town, sits the answer to his prayers--a brand new $58 million jail known as the Wapato Facility. Secluded in an 18-acre parcel where sparrows chuckle in the cottonwood trees, Wapato is the last word in detention. Its 525 beds were designed for "direct supervision," a correctional philosophy in which there are no physical barriers between the inmates and the corrections officers who watch over them. The dorms comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The jail boasts its own power plant, kitchen, laundry and medical clinic, and the security glass in the central control room is two inches thick.

But the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, reeling from revenue shortfalls and paralyzed by infighting, has not given the sheriff the money to get the jail up and running. So while local newscasts air endless horror stories about crime and meth fiends, Wapato has yet to play host to a single inmate. Sheriff Giusto calls it "a $58 million echo chamber."

The first act of this farce was written in 1995, when local voters approved a levy to build a new jail. The levy did not include money for operations, but county officials reckoned that Portland's rising property values would generate the cash. "It all penciled out," says Diane Linn, chairwoman of the five-member Board of Commissioners, which is elected separately from the sheriff.

Then Oregon voters passed a pair of ballot measures that imposed sharp limits on property taxes, the chief source of revenue for local government in this state (which has no sales tax). The ballot measures, combined with the 2001 recession, punched a huge hole in the county's projections and set off a painful round of service cuts and layoffs. "We hit a huge crisis, and we've been rolling from year to year," says Ms. Linn.

Desperate for savings, the board tore into the sheriff's operating budget; he responded by shutting down wards in his five existing jails. Since 2001, he has rolled up more than 400 jail beds, or 20% of his total capacity, and implemented a "matrix system," based on an inmate's propensity for violence and likelihood to commit more crimes. In this real-life matrix, drug dealers and drunk drivers are released to make way for more dangerous offenders such as rapists and robbers. (Brief profiles of freed inmates are posted at

Still, no one would ever mistake Portland for, say, East St. Louis. Violent crime is down, the parks teem with toddlers splashing in the fountains, and the cops are more likely to brandish lattes than nightsticks. But when it comes to public safety, perception is reality, and everyone seems to know someone who has had his car or house broken into--including County Commissioner Lisa Naito, whose laptop was stolen by a self-described meth addict in February. Many crime victims are outraged that red-handed burglars are routinely released back onto the streets within hours of being arrested. "We're losing to these people," says Sheriff Giusto. "We are losing."

While scofflaws scoff and perps perpetrate, the Board of Commissioners is deadlocked over the sheriff's budget. Chairwoman Linn has proposed a deal that would restore 171 jail beds, but has failed to win over a majority of her colleagues, some of whom suspect that the sheriff could open more beds by cutting the amount of overtime he pays his deputies. Board meetings, once about as contentious as a group hug, have turned icy.

Meanwhile, Wapato remains shuttered, its corridors silent. No visitors can appreciate the $180,000 sculpture that adorns its driveway--a series of concrete pillars that resemble the barnacled ribs of an ancient shipwreck--because no one is allowed to visit. So what do you do with a jail that costs $300,000 just to keep closed, anyway? Wags have suggested rehabilitating it into a casino, a hotel or a brewpub. It has also served as the backdrop for a horror flick titled "Path of Evil."

Desperate to find some way out of the maze, county officials recently approached the Oregon Legislature for help. The state prison system is also bursting at the seams--why not house those prisoners at Wapato? Unfortunately, the response so far has been tepid. State officials say Wapato is not suited for long-term incarceration, in part because it has no facilities for an outdoor exercise yard or a Native American sweat lodge, both required by state law.

Besides, the state already has its own project in the works: a 2,100-bed prison in the windswept town of Madras. Last month, the Legislature authorized $191 million to build the Madras prison, but it has not yet figured out how to fund its operation.

Is there an echo in here?

Mr. Lydgate is a Portland writer and author of "Lee's Law: How Singapore Crushes Dissent," (Scribe Publications, 2004).

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