Officials: Troubled Ohio jail conditions improve, but many challenges remain

The group acknowledged that much work lies ahead and progress, in some cases, will continue to be slow

By Courtney Astolfi
Advance Ohio Media, Cleveland

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Key improvements have been made to Cuyahoga County jail operations this year to address crowding, security issues and abysmal conditions, says a consultant’s report released Friday, but county officials still have a long list of challenges to overcome.

A dozen county officials, including County Executive Armond Budish and jail leadership, met with Thursday to discuss a long list of changes they have made or are making in the troubled jail. But the group acknowledged that much work lies ahead and progress, in some cases, will continue to be slow.

The Cuyahoga County jail at the Justice Center, photographed on Wednesday, June 26, 2012.
The Cuyahoga County jail at the Justice Center, photographed on Wednesday, June 26, 2012. (Photo/Lynn Ischay/The Plain Dealer/The Plain Dealer)

The meeting was starkly different from one that Budish and his jail team at the time had with in December, when the jail director and sheriff were unable to answer many reporters’ questions. In the meeting Thursday, Budish’s new team, consisting of Chief of Staff Bill Mason, jail administrator Ronda Gibson, interim Sheriff David Schilling, Warden Gregory Croucher and others demonstrated a close attention to detail, with answers for every question asked, including the most mundane, without having to resort to source materials. The new team has been getting into place over the past couple of months.

Operations at the jail have been under fire for nearly a year, following a spate of inmate deaths in 2018, a U.S. Marshals Service report detailing “inhumane” conditions, an ongoing investigation that has yielded criminal charges against 11 jail employees, and an FBI civil-rights probe.

The county in December hired the nationally recognized American Correctional Association to help guide jail reforms. The association issued its final report this week, saying the county has laid the groundwork for further improvements and is beginning to chip away at chronic problems with inmate crowding and under-staffing.

The following list includes improvements, as outlined by Jail Administrator Ronda Gibson, and areas of continued concern:

• For years, under-staffing at the jail had led to inmates being locked in their cells for hours at a time for non-disciplinary reasons, a practice known as red-zoning. The practice, in which inmates are held in tight spaces with nothing to do, has heightened tensions. The jail now has 641 corrections officers, believed to be the highest tally ever. That has led to a decline in the use of red-zoning, Gibson said.

• Jail leaders have long attributed red-zoning in part to excessive officer guard absences on weekends, holidays or other times, but no mechanism had been in place to address the issue. Warning letters are now being sent to officers who repeatedly call off, which could lead to discipline. Forty-three have been sent so far.

• The number of inmates at the jail had been hundreds over capacity for years and spiked drastically in 2018. To combat crowding, the jail in transferring inmates who already have been sentenced to other Ohio jails to serve their time. Ken Kochevar, part-time consultant and former jail director, is dedicated to identifying inmates eligible for transfer and places where they can go.

• Gibson has asked the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to re-measure the entire downtown jail to determine its official capacity. (Currently, the state-determined capacity is 1,765.) The jail has been renovated since it was built in the 1970s, and a former kitchen area recently was converted into a 118-bed dorm, yet its capacity has not been re-assessed in many years. Gibson believes the re-measurement could lead to an increase in jail capacity.

• The county plans to close the Euclid Jail and reassign its corrections officers to the downtown facility. So far the jail remains open and details have not been ironed out.

• The ACA suggested the county buy two-way radios for each corrections officer, as not having them is a safety concern. Jail officials originally disagreed, saying the radio system would be overburdened by too many guards, but the ACA explained how the system could work efficiently, and Gibson on Thursday said each officer will receive one.

• Inmates at the downtown jail continue to complain about food quality and portion size, even though kitchen operations have improved dramatically since last year, the ACA says. Inspectors who sampled the food said it was warm, appropriately seasoned and well-portioned. None of the 12 county officials on Budish’s jail team who spoke to had tried the jail food, however.

• Corrections officers need more training in first aid, CPR, use-of-force and suicide prevention. Gibson said pulling officers for training in an understaffed jail would have worsened rezoning. As the guard staff reaches the goal, Gibson said, the needed training will occur. Hiring eight more lieutenants and additional corporals and sergeants also will help accomplish training goals, Gibson said.

• The ACA noted several improvements to cleanliness inside the jail. Public Works continues to clean and re-paint surfaces, but sanitation problems remain despite daily and weekly cleaning schedules.

• The Public Works department continues to repair, paint, clean and de-clutter the building. Fixes are being made to broken locks, kitchen equipment, plumbing, lighting and electric.

• In a radical change in the process, MetroHealth is generally completing a mental health assessment within four hours of an inmate’s arrival, as well as a general health assessment. The aim is to identify inmates at risk of suicide well before they make attempts.

• MetroHealth now offers inmates a new process to file grievances about health care, allowing MetroHealth to respond to problems quicker. Friends and family can call MetroHealth directly if they are concerned about an inmate’s care.

• Inmates were not granted the state-mandated amount of recreation time each week due to short-staffing and crowding, the ACA reported. But the jail plans to add exercise mats to each housing unit to comply with state requirements.

• The ACA report states that the jail continues to deny inmates who have been disciplined their Fifth Amendment right to due process. Former Chief Deputy George Taylor in February said those constitutional rights already had been restored. Budish’s team made clear Thursday that Taylor’s claim was not true. While the jail is changing how it handles inmate discipline, those changes have yet to go into effect, Gibson said.

• The jail implemented a new housing classification system for inmates based on their security risk to other inmates.

• The county IT Department expects to overhaul the archaic jail management system software, which provides vital, easy-to-access information about inmates. The system is expected to be installed next year.

• Gibson wants to install new systems to replace outdated security camera monitors, intercoms, and remotely-operated doors to improve jail security.

Mason likened the longtime maintenance and sanitation problems at the jail to the “broken window theory” – the notion that visible signs of disorder in an environment, such as a building’s unfixed broken window, encourages further disorder. His goal is to get everything fixed and clean, which will make it easier to keep things maintained.

He noted that public officials have been discussing plans for a new justice center for so many years, that those involved with running and maintaining the jail likely have been more inclined to overlook the problems in anticipation of eventually getting a new building.

Mason said the county is advocating for major reforms in how cases are processed to help cut back on the number of days inmates accused of low-level offenses spend in the jail. He said the county is hoping to partner with Oriana House, a community corrections and addiction agency, to issue more tracking bracelets to offenders who would be good candidates for pretrial release and monitoring. And Mason said he has personally visited judges to discuss whether specific low-level felony cases on their dockets could be handled in this way.

The county also is in discussions with the medical examiner’s office about hiring more technicians to help cut back on wait times for DNA and drug testing results in cases.

Mason said that one long-term solution to jail overcrowding would be to implement central booking – a one-stop-shop for new inmates, where they can be evaluated by MetroHealth staff, meet with a public defender and potentially be diverted to drug treatment. And most importantly, Mason said, assigning each inmate a lawyer as early in their case as possible could dramatically reduce the number of days that person spends languishing in jail. Instead of awaiting indictment behind bars at the cost of $110 per day to the county, a defense lawyer could help resolve the case, whether by plea agreement, dismissal or trial.

The possibility of a central booking process has been deliberated among players in Cuyahoga County’s criminal justice system for decades. But Mason said Thursday that many parties are involved in current discussions on the topic, and he’s heartened by their progress.

©2019 Advance Ohio Media, Cleveland

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