Soaring COVID infections cap tumultuous year for Ohio jail

This most recent surge has already claimed the life of an officer and an inmate


By Adam Ferrise
cleveland.com
        
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Drug use in the jail, spiking population and staffing issues plagued the Cuyahoga County Jail this year.

As county officials sought to put plans in place to address those issues, they’ve now turned their attention to a spike in coronavirus cases brought on by the omicron variant that has ripped through the jail, as it has the population at large.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on Thursday deployed 25 members of the Ohio Military Reserve to the jail and ordered other state assistance in order to quell an outbreak of coronavirus at the jail that included the recent deaths of corrections officer Williams Haines and inmate Samuel Foster from COVID-19.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on Thursday deployed 25 members of the Ohio Military Reserve to the Cuyahoga County Jail in order to quell an outbreak of coronavirus.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on Thursday deployed 25 members of the Ohio Military Reserve to the Cuyahoga County Jail in order to quell an outbreak of coronavirus. (Cory Shaffer/cleveland.com)

Cuyahoga County Public Safety Chief Robert Coury said the number of inmates with COVID-19 ballooned from eight on Dec. 13 to 144 on Wednesday. More than 50 corrections officers were out sick with virus as of last week.

“I feel like it’s an alarming number of COVID-positive cases, and it makes me fear for a return to December of last year,” Coury said, referencing when the jail hit an all-time high of 298 inmates and 90 corrections officers with coronavirus.

Coury said jail officials are quarantining inmates who test positive for the virus and isolating others who came into close contact with the inmates who tested positive. He said jail staff ramped up testing inmates and is offering vaccines to others.

Along with the the 25 Ohio Military Reserve members, who arrive at the jail on Tuesday, the state ordered the county to expedite the hiring of 40 new jail officer candidates, reduce in-person visitations, and carefully review whether or not people arrested for probation violations or for active warrants need to be jailed.

So far, MetroHealth has vaccinated 1,049 inmates. Inmates are not forced to get vaccinations, but the county gives incentives, like free phone time or money in their commissary accounts for snacks and other items, if they get vaccinated.

The COVID-19 spike is the latest issue at the jail. Outside the jail, the trial of former jail director Ken Mills captured the attention of jail officials and officers alike, some of whom testified in the trial. Mills was tried, convicted and sent to prison for nine months for mismanaging the jail to the point it became unsafe for inmates and officers during the string of inmate deaths. Nine inmates died between June 2018 and May 2019.

County officials said 2021 was a trying year on several fronts, but no inmates died from suicide or drug overdose deaths this year, the first time that’s happened since 2017. An inmate, Michael Brewer, who was jailed on murder charges, died in May from Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Population spiking, lockdowns increasing

The Mills trial again laid bare the issue of understaffing at the jail and its effect on inmates. When jail staffing plummets, inmates are locked down in their cells for long periods in what’s known as red-zoning.

This year the number of officers dipped from a high of 705 in February 2020 to 550 at the end of August. The amount of red-zoning during the year spiked to levels not seen since the county began tracking red-zoning hours at the beginning of 2019.

The average hours of red-zoning per day at the jail jumped from 61 hours per month in January to 219 hours in September and 211 in October, according to the most recent data made available by the county.

At the same time, the inmate population rose this year to above 1,600 for the first time since officials released some 900 inmates at the beginning of the pandemic for an all-time low of 950 inmates. The population steadily crept back up since, but it’s still below the state-rated capacity of 1,883.

Cuyahoga County Sheriff Christopher Viland said red-zoning has likely increased since then due to several factors, including the COVID-19 outbreak.

Viland said officials took several steps that they hope will curb the lack of staffing and red-zoning. In August, the county approved significant pay raises for corrections officers to attract and retain officers while adding bonuses for perfect attendance. They are now among the highest-paid in the state.

Two mass-hiring events, in which a prospective candidate can be interviewed and get expedited background checks on the same day, helped bring on about 100 new hires, Viland said.

That would put the county up to about 650 officers, with the goal to bring in at least another 50 in 2022.

“Within a two-month period of time, we will have been able to bring on over 100 brand-new corrections officers, which will put us back up to almost where the department was when I started in March,” Viland said. “So we will get back to a certain status quo. But that’s not sufficient. And everybody knows that.”

Adam Chaloupka, the attorney for the Ohio Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association that represents jail officers, said the amount of red-zoning has been difficult on officers. Some of them quit during the year because of the stress of watching 100 or more inmates simultaneously.

But, he acknowledged that the mid-year raise and new hires have at least sparked some optimism.

“I think we’re kind of trending in the right direction,” Chaloupka said. “Because we see light at the end of the tunnel with regards to how many officers they’ve hired.”

Drugs

Chaloupka said one of the most pressing issues facing the jail in recent months is the spike in inmates using drugs — or in some cases smoking pages of old books — in their cells.

County statistics show the number of “drug incidents,” which could include anything from an inmate being caught with drugs in a cell to new arrestees found with drugs in their pockets — more than tripled in 2021. Drugs incidents spiked from 83 in 2020 to 279 through Tuesday.

Viland said the spike in drug incidents is due in at least some part to officials deploying drug-sniffing dogs in the jail this year.

County officials said they are unsure how drugs are getting into the jail. In some cases, people soak paper in chemicals, such as bug spray, and inmates smoke the paper.

Chaloupka said some inmates are smoking the old paper with no drugs on them. The old ink and decaying paper get the inmates high and emit toxic smoke. Two officers in the last month needed medical attention as a result.

Viland said officials plan to combat the flow of drugs into the jail by installing on Jan. 1 a new body scanner at the entry point of the jail for corrections officers, attorneys, contractors and anyone else who enters the jail. The jail already has a body scanner for inmates.

Viland also said they are seeking a company that could scan inmates’ mail and provides them digital copies instead of hard copies that might be soaked with chemicals.

Assaults

Assaults of officers by inmates also became an issue in 2021. The county did not provide statistics on assaults in the jail, despite repeated requests over several weeks.

Through the first four months of the year, the jail recorded 27 assaults on officers, putting it on pace to eclipse the 2020 total of 69. Several assaults were severe enough to send officers to the hospital for treatment.

Chaloupka said the assaults are a concern, along with sexual assaults by inmates on corrections officers.

Viland said the sheriff’s office investigated five accusations of sexual assaults by inmates. One of the inmates received an additional charge of gross sexual imposition, and the case is pending.

Chaloupka said it’s the first time he can remember that an inmate was criminally charged with sexual assault on an officer. Viland said when he took over as sheriff in March, he instituted a zero-tolerance policy that included prosecuting inmates for sexually assaulting officers.

Two officers killed

While safety issues at the jail have been an ongoing problem for years, jail officials said they were shocked by the deaths of corrections officers outside the jail.

Two officers, Haines and Horace Washington died after contracting COVID-19. A former jail officer, Jalen Howard, who was facing criminal charges that accused him of sexually assaulting an inmate, died from pneumonia while awaiting trial.

[More: Second CO from Ohio jail dies after contracting COVID-19]

And two corrections officers were fatally shot in separate incidents in 2021.

Officer Timoteo “Timmy” Cruz was shot to death during a March shootout in a Parma bar parking lot. Cruz was working as a security guard when authorities said two brothers kicked out of the bar opened fire on the bar, killing a patron who had stepped outside. Cruz fired back, hitting one of the men before being shot and killed.

[More: Ohio CO killed in bar shootout hailed as hero, loving father and friend]

In September, officer Valerie Gudger was shot and killed by her boyfriend, former corrections officer Brandon Smith, during a domestic dispute in Cleveland. Smith later took his own life during an eight-hour standoff with a SWAT team.

Viland became emotional and choked up when asked about the deaths. Warden Michelle Henry said memorials for both officers are set up in the jail.

“The people who work here are some of the greatest and most compassionate and loving people you’ll find anywhere,” Henry said. “They still provide resources and keep in contact with Tim’s and Valerie’s family. It’s not easy, but when you come together as a family, regardless of our disputes and our arguments, we come together we support one another, and that’s we just have to do it.”

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