‘Never been a problem’ for Ohio inmates to find ride home from out-of-county jails
Lack of post-release transport in county’s inmate transfer policy raises concerns
By Kaitlin Durbin
CLEVELAND — In the last five years, Cuyahoga County has transferred over 950 people from its downtown jail to facilities in other counties to await trial or serve short sentences of less than one year, but it has never offered them a way back home.
Detainees have gone to local jails, in North Royalton or Solon , or traveled up to two hours to facilities in Geauga, Lake , Wood and Seneca counties, data obtained through a records request show. In one case, a person was transferred this year to Gallia County , on the West Virginia border.
Sometimes, those transfers are necessary for safety reasons, to separate co-defendants and witnesses involved in the same case or members of rival gangs when there is not space available to do so within the Justice Center. Other times, transfers help “reduce the daily population,” to avoid overcrowding or combat staffing shortages, the county often notes in public records.
In rare cases, Cuyahoga County deputies will pick up those detainees and bring them back for court hearings or sentencing. But most of the time, those people are released directly from where they’re last held. And that’s where finding their own way home can be tricky.
People exiting the jail in downtown Cleveland are more likely to have the benefit of family living nearby who can pick them up. If not, they walk out of the jail with public transit passes and ready access to trains and buses that can shuttle them closer to their front doors.
Those exiting jails elsewhere, like Geauga County , where the vast majority of people end up, can have a harder journey home.
A roster of people released from the Geauga County jail over a two-week period in November showed four individuals who had initially come from Cuyahoga County . Their time spent in Geauga before release ranged from three to six days.
Cleveland.com reached out to the individuals to ask about whether being released in Geauga created hardships in getting home. One woman responded, “yes, it did,” but declined to answer additional questions.
Her response wouldn’t be unusual, though, according to The Geauga County Reentry Program, a collaborative effort between advocacy group Family Pride and The Geauga County Safety Center. The agency helps Geauga residents transition back into the community after incarceration, but also find themselves arranging transportation for individuals trying to return to Cuyahoga , according to Angela Daugherty , executive director of Family Pride.
The reentry program provides Cuyahoga County residents with two Geauga Transit bus tickets to get the person to Cleveland Clinic’s Hillcrest Hospital , in Mayfield Heights , where they can then access the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority lines. The three fares cost the agency about $17, Daugherty said, and it’s not always a smooth transition.
Depending on when a person is released, “there may not be a bus available for several hours or not at all,” one of Daugherty’s coordinators explained in an email. “More so, Geauga Transit does not offer service on the weekends, so a sentence expiring on a weekend means I have to ask a corrections officer to contact the ( Geauga ) Sherriff’s office dispatch to see whether a deputy can take the client to connect with RTA in Mayfield Heights .”
That’s a scenario that the county has wondered about often, as it has wrestled over whether to provide round-trip transportation. It came up most recently in an April Board of Control meeting, where officials approved funding for the jail transfers. County council staffer Jim Boyle pressed the now-retired jail administrator Ronda Gibson about what happens to residents after release.
“I’m just worried that we’re just going to open up the door in Chardon , in Geauga County , and say, ‘OK, well, take care, have a good day,’ and the individual has to get him or herself back to Westlake or wherever it is,” Boyle said in the meeting. “That’s a hike.”
At the time, Gibson told him that sheriff officials were meeting that week to talk over potential options for returning inmates downtown after their release. However, those talks apparently stalled.
In November, County Executive Chris Ronayne’s office told cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer that it “has no plans at this time” to give transferred inmates rides back downtown because transportation has “never been a problem.” Spokeswoman Kelly Woodard later clarified that the county has never heard complaints from individuals who had trouble getting back home after release from another facility.
A week later, Woodard said the county was reconsidering transportation needs, but never shared planned changes. Then, in mid-December, Woodard told cleveland.com that the county is now only transferring inmates to Geauga , which it said already provides transportation support at release.
“Inmates are issued bus passes upon release or can purchase bus passes through commissary. Geauga County will drop off people at Hillcrest Hospital to catch the bus,” Woodard said in an email. “We no longer transport inmates to Wood , Lucas , Solon , Seneca , North Royalton , Gallia , or Lake counties.”
Long-term, Woodard said a new jail campus being planned in Garfield Heights is expected to eliminate transportation concerns altogether, because it “will be large enough to house all inmates, so we do not anticipate transporting those in custody to outside county facilities.” The county will be able to provide all re-entry, medical and other wraparound services on site, she said.
However, the property itself has been criticized for having weak connections to public transit – one bus passing by every 30 minutes or more, depending on the day – with no plans announced to increase services. The new jail is also years away from being built.