"Absolutely terrible": Ohio councilwoman condemns jail food, hedges on new jail funding

Despite substandard conditions for staff and inmates, Turner hasn’t made up her mind on whether to approve $750M price tag for new jail

By Kaitlin Durbin

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Cuyahoga County Councilwoman Meredith Turner knows that current conditions in the jail must improve for staff and inmates, though she says she hasn’t made up her mind yet whether that means spending hundreds of millions of dollars building a new one.

But one thing she is unequivocally certain of: the food must improve.

Bologna sandwiches piled on a table in the kitchen, ready for distribution at the Cuyahoga (Ohio) County jail on June 2, 2022. Cleveland.com took a tour of the facility to observe conditions in the 46-year-old building as the county weighs building a new one. (Photo David Petkiewicz/cleveland.com via MCT)
Bologna sandwiches piled on a table in the kitchen, ready for distribution at the Cuyahoga (Ohio) County jail on June 2, 2022. Cleveland.com took a tour of the facility to observe conditions in the 46-year-old building as the county weighs building a new one. (Photo David Petkiewicz/cleveland.com via MCT) (David Petkiewicz/cleveland.com via MCT)

“Whoever the vendor is, they need to be fired immediately,” she told her colleagues during the September 13 committee of the whole meeting.

The newest member of council had toured the facility days earlier to see for herself how inmates are living, and said the experience left a bad taste in her mouth. Literally.

She ate the same lunch that was being served to the rest of the population, and from the first bite “it was awful, it was absolutely terrible,” she said in an interview with cleveland.com this week. It only got worse from there.

The protein she identified only as “some meat substance.” The green beans were bland. The bread was stale. The peaches were sour.

Jail Administrator Ronda Gibson and other corrections staff had joined her for lunch that day, so Turner said she “kept eating to ensure that they tasted everything that was there.” It was a sort of game of chicken to see who would stop and acknowledge the bad food first. Turner lost.

They never admitted the food was inedible, she said, but they did all agree that they should reevaluate the vendor, Trinity Services Group, Inc. Not only was the food bad, but Turner said she “had concerns about everything in that kitchen,” noting food being stored on the floor and a general disorganization.

It’s possible that a few changes could turn things around, Turner said, but the current service cannot continue.

“They got an F that day from me, and that would mean fired,” Turner said of the vendor, believing the jail’s administrators secretly agreed. “They would not eat that if they had to.”

Another perspective

The county hired Trinity back in 2020 to replace its former vendor, after the U.S. Marshals Service cited their bad food service as one of the contributing factors to “inhumane” conditions in the jail. But council had reservations about the company then, amid news reports that Trinity’s poor food quality and inadequate staffing had led to inmate riots in some states, among other problems.

Neither Turner nor District 3 Councilman Martin Sweeney were members of council then, but their colleagues were, approving a nearly $9 million contract for Trinity’s jail food services. It expires in June 2023, records show.

Turner wonders if the food could be contributing to disputes and aggressions in the jail, now. During her tour, many inmates told her they don’t eat unless they buy something from the commissary, if they can afford it. Hungry people are more irritated and agitated, she said.

Another county leader has firsthand experience.

Former Newburgh Heights mayor Trevor Elkins spent 30 days inside the Cuyahoga County jail this year on misdemeanor convictions for using campaign funds for personal use. The food, he recently told cleveland.com, “is criminal.”

For breakfast, he said, inmates are served plain oatmeal or cereal with bread and a glob of jelly, which he said, most people scraped into their oatmeal for some flavor. For dinner, there would be what he also only described as a mystery meat, along with a vegetable, usually carrots or green beans, some kind of pasta, rice or potato, two pieces of bread and a packet of lemon flavoring to pour in a cup of water.

“I don’t know what it was, but it wasn’t edible. It smelled so bad I wouldn’t want to eat it,” Elkins said of the meat substance, though he admittedly only eats fish.

Most of the food ends up in the garbage, he said – “So, if you want to eat, you really have to buy commissary.”

But because nearly everyone is supplementing their diet with commissary items, the inventory is always running low, he said. He described men bartering for food and reusing old milk cartons to make their own meals.

“On good food days, there was almost a collective cheer because there was something we could eat,” Elkins said. “Having lived through it now, myself, it’s no wonder people are bitter.”

That’s just related to the food. Elkins also described other inhumane conditions in the jail, which cleveland.com will be including in a future series with other firsthand accounts of life inside the jail, from staff and inmates. Contact reporter Kaitlin Durbin at kdurbin@cleveland.com to share your experience.

A higher standard

It’s not just inmates who are complaining about the food. During a September council meeting, 20-year corrections officer William Speight raised a number of concerns about conditions in the jail but specifically called the Trinity contract a “waste of taxpayer allocated funds.” He commended Turner for trying it herself.

“Inside that jail, the food is deplorable,” Speight said. “It’s going to get somebody hurt.”

Jail isn’t meant to be a luxury hotel with five-star menus, Turner told cleveland.com, but it also can’t be a form of torture. Jails house people awaiting trial, meaning they’re presumed innocent, and most will be returning to society eventually.

On the day of her visit, there were 1,664 people in the jail, she said. At least 75% of them had not been convicted of a crime, though nearly all faced felony charges. The remaining inmates either had municipal charges, were being held for other courts or were awaiting transfer to a treatment facility or prison, after being convicted.

While they wait, they deserve proper care, Turner said.

She expects the jail to serve nutritional food that tastes good. It shouldn’t have too much salt or preservatives, there should be more variety to support religious or cultural needs, and it should reflect the preferences of the mostly African American population, she said, which “culturally, we’re used to something different.”

“If we treat them like predators, if we institutionalize those values in them while they’re inside, what do we think they’re going to do when they come back out?” Turner asked.

Serving time is the punishment, she continued, “Why do we have to exacerbate that with terrible conditions, bad food and no privileges?”

Other concerns

Bad food was just one of the problems Turner noted on her tour of the jail.

Just as concerning, she said, is the crumbling infrastructure, faulty plumbing, a lack of sunlight, inadequate medical and mental health facilities, recreation limitations, small cells, other state standard violations, a cramped intake garage, expensive employee parking, and a supply dock ramp so steep that trucks can’t use it for deliveries.

Individually, the problems seem easily fixable, she said, but when she adds them all up, they total a new jail.

Council is expected to vote this month on whether to buy the controversial property at 2700 Transport Road to become the future home for a new jail, and it’s weighing how long to extend the county’s quarter-percent sales tax to pay for it. Turner says she remains conflicted about what to do.

She hears from community members, corrections officers and judges who say they don’t want a new jail, she said, but she also hears others who do.

As a longtime activist, having marched with Black Lives Matter and advocated for equitable community resources to help disrupt the pipeline to jail, she said spending the now estimated $750 million on a new jail goes against her values – “I’m not uncaring, I’m not a person who wants to incarcerate people for a living...”

But after witnessing conditions in the current jail, building new also makes sense – “How many times do you patch a roof before you just replace the roof?” she questioned.

“It’s emotional, because I want to make the right decision,” Turner said, her voice catching. “I’m praying on it.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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