Ohio county's ex-jail director downplayed concerns after five inmates died, emails show
Ken Mills is standing trial for misdemeanor dereliction of duty charges as well as felony tampering with records
By Cory Shaffer
Advance Ohio Media
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Cuyahoga County's former jail director Ken Mills downplayed concerns over safety issues in the jail in September 2018, even after six inmates died in less than three months, according to emails read aloud in court Wednesday.
The deaths came within months of the the jail absorbing hundreds of inmates from the city of Cleveland as part of a push to turn a profit, even as corrections officers and nursing staff raised alarms that the overcrowded and understaffed facility was not ready to take them, according to testimony.
In one email sent to Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish's former Chief of Staff Earl Leiken and Safety Director Brandy Carney, Mills dismissed concerns raised by a corrections officer who filed a grievance over the jail. Mills called the grievance unfounded, and disagreed with the officer's contention that the overcrowded jail had become dangerous and hostile.
"There has not been a significant increase in issues in the jail," Mills wrote in the email. "The actual situation is much different than portrayed (or I would be sending up the red flags)."
Two months later, Mills resigned after a U.S. Marshal's report found widespread safety and constitutional violations in the jail created "inhumane" conditions.
He now faces misdemeanor dereliction of duty charges that accuse him of negligently mismanaging the jail to the point where the facility violated safety regulations and inmates did not receive adequate health care, shelter or food in the run-up to a historic series of inmate deaths beginning in June 2018.
Mills is also charged with felony tampering with records and misdemeanor falsification charges that accuse him of lying to Cuyahoga County Council during a 2018 committee meeting about his role in blocking the hiring of nurses at the jail.
The emails from Mills came amid testimony from multiple county officials, including current Solon Mayor and the county's former regionalization chief Eddie Kraus, MetroHealth Chief of Staff Jane Platten, a county budget analyst and an attorney for the union that represents corrections officers.
Taken together, the witnesses' testimony and the emails painted a picture of Mills seeking to turn a profit on the jail by slashing spending on medical care for inmates. He sought to accomplish that goal by launching a failed attempt to give a for-profit company a no-bid contract to provide health care services in the jail, and packing the jail full of inmates the county could charge municipalities to house, according to the testimony and emails.
Mills also tried to reduce overtime for corrections officers by removing voluntary overtime shifts, and cut spending on food served to inmates, the witnesses testified.
The emails showed Mills broke the chain of command in the sheriff's department and routinely communicated directly with Budish, the county executive's inner circle and the county's safety directors without looping in Mills' boss, Sheriff Clifford Pinkney.
Jail as a money maker
Danielle Clark, a former county budget analyst in the office of budget management, testified that Mills talked about using the jail to make a profit for the county. She testified that Mills, not Pinkney, submitted budgets for the jail. She also said Mills' savings projections did not add up, and he frequently did not provide any reasoning for those calculations.
She pointed to a table Mills provided that projected if the jail was more crowded, it would bring in more money for the county. If the jail was 80 percent full, Mills projected the county would make $7 million over five years, the table said.
Clark said she was suspicious of Mills' estimates and conducted her own analysis. She that found the Cleveland merger would be "unsustainable" and would not turn a profit. She found that if the jail was overcrowded, the county would have to spend more money on health care and food.
Much of Wednesday's testimony focused on Mills' attempt in 2017 to replace MetroHealth with NaphCare, a for-profit Alabama-based company that provides medical care to inmates in jails in several states.
Kraus testified that he met with Rachel Winder, a lobbyist who was registered to lobby on behalf of both Cuyahoga County and NaphCare. Winder sent Kraus an email asking for Mills' contact information to discuss "healthcare in the jail," Kraus said. Kraus provided Mills' info.
Prosecutors have said Mills was motivated to undermine MetroHealth's ability to provide care at the jail so he could outsource the medical care. Mills asked NaphCare to submit a bid, and then included that bid in his budget proposal.
County Councilman Michael Gallagher testified on Friday that Mills frequently complained to him about MetroHealth. Jail employees also testified that Mills would watch the jail's surveillance cameras in his office and complain that the nurses were not doing anything.
Prosecutors showed that Winder emailed Mills a two-page quote that said the county could save as much as $2 million by switching to NaphCare.
Mills sent the quote to former budget director Maggie Keenan, and eventually included it in the 2017-2018 budget proposal for the jail.
Ohio Police Benevolent Association attorney Adam Chaloupka testified that officers filed more than 40 grievances during Mills' four years in the jail. Many of them dealt with corrections officers being forced into overtime shifts, Mills expanding the jail's use of lockdowns to allow officers to monitor multiple pods at a time and inmates sleeping on floors, Chaloupka said.
He testified that the third-floor area of the jail where Cleveland's inmates were housed was "much dirtier" than the rest of the jail.
Platten testified that Mills moved the intake screening process from the sally port, where inmates first enter the jail, to the seventh floor. Because the jail was understaffed, there were not enough corrections officers to bring inmates from the seventh floor medical unit for the exams.
Platten said Mills told her in emails, which were displayed to the jury, that the jail would no longer give inmates the full health screening at intake. Mills said corrections officers would instead ask a few basic questions about inmates and then place them in general population.
The move was meant to avoid giving inmates a full physical upon entry into the jail because the state's minimum standards say jails have 14 days to give such an assessment.
Platten's testimony was interrupted to break for the day and will resume Thursday morning.
A county IT worker also read dozens of emails that Mills sent dating back to January 2015. At that time, after Budish took office to replace former County Executive Ed FitzGerald, Mills was about to lose his job as the director of justice services, which involved overseeing the county's 911 call center.
Mills emailed his employees and said the new administration wanted to keep him as a director and a representative was meeting with him to talk about potential jobs. The interim chief of staff at the time, Matt Carroll, testified previously that he met with Mills but did not recall what the men discussed.
Mills also sent an email to Budish on Feb. 7, 2015, pleading to keep his job.
Two days later, Budish tapped Mills as the director of regional corrections, even though he had no experience working in corrections. A county news release announcing his appointment that same day said Mills would direct operations in the jail and his position would eventually become "self-sustaining" from the revenue generated by regionalizing the jail.
Someone sitting among a group of county employees in the courtroom muttered an audible "Jesus" as the news release was read in court.
Phil Angelo, a former assistant to Pinkney, testified on Tuesday that the county turned down a more experienced candidate as jail administrator earlier in the process because it did not want to match his requested $95,000 salary. The county wound up paying Mills a $120,000 salary to run the jail.
At the time, the sheriff made less than $90,000 a year. The county later raised the sheriff's salary to be above the jail director's salary.
The emails showed that in October 2017, at the same time Mills tried to replace MetroHealth with NaphCare and projected huge savings in his budget proposals, he applied to be Budish's chief of public safety after Frank Bova stepped down. The promotion would have seen Mills leapfrog the sheriff and report directly to Budish. Mills did not ultimately get the position after Pinkney told Budish that he would not get a fit, Leiken testified on Tuesday.
In June 2017, the county's then-communications chief Eliza Wing emailed Mills asking for a copy of a 2014 report on the county's plan to regionalize the jail to provide to cleveland.com. Mills sent her a copy of it and added that he "deviated from the plan some."
Another email, in September 2017, showed Mills complaining to a sergeant and two corrections that not enough inmates were being housed at the Euclid jail annex, which the county acquired as part of the regionalization plan. The email showed that there 66 inmates at the facility.
"I asked you to fill it up three weeks ago, and we are still not there," Mills wrote. "I haven't seen it get to even 70 yet."
The Euclid jail annex's maximum capacity was 32 inmates, according to the state corrections department.
Mills told the sergeants that the downtown jail was redzoned and "inmates sleeping on floors," the email said.
"[E]very bed needs to be full," he wrote.
Prosecutors also pointed to a January 2018 email from a juvenile court administrator to Taylor and Mills, asking if Mills was available to be on a panel to select someone to run the juvenile detention center.
Taylor responded and added Pinkney to the chain. He said they would suggest the jail's warden, Eric Ivey, participate in the panel "due to his extensive corrections experience."
Pinkney replied, "I completely agree."
Mills forwarded that email thread to Budish and his chief of staff at the time, Sharon Sobol Jordan, with the message, "FYI, concerning."
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