Ohio county promises new jail to fix persistent noncompliance with state standards

Problems flagged repeatedly by inspectors were related to the jail being too small, too dark and understaffed

By Kaitlin Durbin

CLEVELAND — Every year, the Cuyahoga County jail falls short of state standards for inmate care, but the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has been overlooking some of the deficiencies because the county is promising to build a new facility.

During the most recent inspection in October 2021, the jail met 167 of the standards reviewed – a significant improvement over previous years where conditions in the jail fell far short and contributed to a string of inmate deaths in 2018 and 2019. However, it did not meet 12 standards due to under-sized cells, understaffing, and insufficient employee training related to suicide prevention, medical care and fire safety.

A bit of outside light fills a small cell during a tour of the Cuyahoga County jail.
A bit of outside light fills a small cell during a tour of the Cuyahoga County jail. (Photo/David Petkiewicz of Cleveland.com via TNS)

The county was required to tell the state how it planned to correct those deficiencies, writing in reports that most of them were – or were soon expected to be — remedied by bumping up the thermostat, installing brighter lightbulbs, or increasing staff levels through a series of mass hiring events. As a result, the state deemed Cuyahoga County back in compliance with three of the standards.

But the only proposed way to fix four persistent problems, largely relating to the size of inmate cells, and a lack of natural lighting — which the state flags year after year in its inspections – is through “new or additional facility space,” former sheriff Christopher Viland indicated in “plan of action” reports submitted to the state.

And how will the county get that extra space?

“Construction of a new jail,” Viland’s report says, highlighting that the county has already hired an architect and was identifying a site location.

It gave a completion date for the new jail of Dec. 31, 2025.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction requires all corrections facilities to meet a series of minimum standards either deemed “essential,” meaning they directly support the life, safety and health of inmates, employees and others in the jail, or “important,” meaning they represent good correctional practices.

[RELATED: Ohio county sheriff's deputies must work in jail, amid corrections officer shortage]

The state has little recourse against jails that repeatedly fall short of those standards, other than to sue the respective county to force compliance if the jail is not taking steps to correct issues on its own, ODRC spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said.

Some of the major standards where the jail repeatedly falls short have been grandfathered under rules from the time the jail was built in 1976, before things like cell size or lighting conditions were updated to reflect modern practices. But those grandfather protections don’t seem to be what’s pacifying the state. Rather, it’s the county’s promise to make changes, including building a new jail.

“Given [Cuyahoga County’s] improvement in compliance with jail standards and commitment to plans of action, it has not been necessary for DRC to seek court intervention,” Smith said.

At the time of the state’s report, the 12-member Justice Center Steering Committee reviewing whether to renovate or build a new jail had unanimously recommended new construction outside of downtown Cleveland. The committee had even begun to narrow down potential locations.

But members recently reversed course, calling for the county to reconsider what it would involve renovate the existing complex and what that might cost. Early estimates gave a range of around $300 million to renovate and $550 million to build new.

It’s unclear how the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction might react if plans for a new jail stall out or get scrapped.

Here’s a look at the chronic problems flagged repeatedly by state jail inspectors during annual reviews:

It’s too small

A fourth of the violations in the 2021 inspection related to the jail being too small for the number of inmates housed there.

On the day of the inspection, the state noted the jail held 1,665 inmates, which is below both the county’s listed capacity of 1,880 and the state’s preferred capacity of 1,765. Yet, the jail still couldn’t provide each inmate with the amount of space they’re entitled to.

The state recommends that single-occupancy cells be at least 48 square feet in jails built prior to 1983, like the Justice Center, and 70 square feet in newer jails. On the day of the inspection, however, some of the inmates were doubled up in cells that are between 60 and 77 square feet. It’s a long-standing practice in the jail that leaves each inmate less space than what the state requires, even for old jails.

The state recommended the jail “only hold one inmate in those single cells to show compliance with the standard,” the report says.

The jail also doesn’t provide proper shower facilities, the report said. The state requires a minimum of one operable shower for every 12 inmates. The report did not detail how many showers the county jail needs to be compliant, but noted “areas of the jail were not equipped with the proper number of showers for inmates.”

Both are structural problems that jail officials and Jeff Appelbaum, the county’s consultant on jail planning, say are impossible to fix through renovation, because any modifications made to cells or living areas would also require the county to comply with the newer, larger space standards for each inmate.

Such renovations in the current jail would be “impractical, if not cost prohibitive, to satisfy,” Appelbaum told the jail’s steering committee in a recent email.

“The floor plate cannot be changed, so, once renovated, virtually all such cells will have to revert to single occupancy, therefore greatly reducing the current capacity of the existing jails,” Appelbaum wrote.

The state confirmed to cleveland.com that “Any new construction or renovations at the jail would have to comply with current standards.” That rule would not apply to any areas of the jail not touched by renovations, Smith said.

Though the inmate population dipped during the pandemic, the jail has long struggled with crowding. Jail planners anticipate needing room for more beds in the future jail, not fewer.

Steering committee members are seeking a second opinion on the viability of renovating the current facility, the funding for which is expected to be considered by county council this month.

[RELATED: As Ohio jail staff dwindles and inmate population increases, assaults against officers rise]

It’s too dark

Jail Administrator Ronda Gibson has previously criticized the lack of natural light in the jail, which she said not only has an impact on inmates, but jail staff as well. During a recent tour of the jail, cleveland.com saw two small window slits in most individual cells, but almost no natural light in the interior of the building where staff work.

A few housing units also don’t have any access to natural light and cannot be retrofitted with windows, Gibson has said.

Those cells are repeatedly in violation of state standards that require natural light be provided in all housing units, dorms, cells and other “inmate occupied areas,” inspection reports say.

It’s understaffed

For years, a shortage of corrections officers has led to inmates being locked in their cells for long stretches of the day, commonly referred to as “red-zoning.” The practice is not condoned by the state.

During the latest inspection, the state found that the jail “did not provide documentation showing required security posts are always being staffed, creating a need for red-zoning.”

The state requires adequate staffing to cover security as well for inmate programs, inmate supervision, custody and back up, and for support services, like food service, medical needs and maintenance.

“The jail shall hire additional security and supervisory staff to show compliance with the standard,” the state recommended.

Cuyahoga County has been more aggressive with recruiting. It increased starting hourly salaries to $24.48 last year, and has been hosting special hiring events where candidates can apply, receive a background check, interview, and be offered a job within a few hours. A recent June event attracted 97 candidates, 56 of which received conditional job offers, pending the results of their background checks, Director of Human Resources Sheba Marshall told the county’s Board of Control during a recent meeting.

Still, staffing remains well below the 690 officers authorized, a benchmark the county even lowered from previous years. In April, the county reported 648 corrections officers. Numbers have since fallen to 630 in July.

[RELATED: Jury convicts ex-Ohio jail director for mismanaging jail, lying to county council]

Other issues

Other deficiencies flagged by the state in 2021 included:

  • Some employees failing to have required annual CPR, fire safety and suicide prevention training. At the time of the inspection, “not all staff” were up to date in those areas, but the county said it would be providing computers for staff to do online training and hiring more officers to cover shifts during in-person training.

  • Not having two-way communications systems in all inmate occupied areas, which the state says is “essential” to security of the jail. “There shall be two-way communications system between central control, staffed posts and inmate occupied areas...” the report said. Lack of such communication has been a problem in the jail for years.
  • Better temperature control throughout the facility. The state reported that temperatures in some areas in Jail I “were not at acceptable comfort levels.” The jail later corrected the issue, records show.
  • Failing to complete annual fire inspections to make sure the jail is in compliance with jurisdictional and state fire codes.

The 2021 inspection was a big improvement over past reviews, especially in 2018, when the state found the jail was out of compliance with 84 standards, 35 of them “essential.” Those deficiencies – many related to inadequate access to healthcare — later played a role in former jail administrator Ken Mills’ criminal trial.

Since then, the county has taken a number of steps to improve conditions in the jail, including hiring MetroHealth Hospital in 2019 to take over inmate healthcare. The later decision recently led the jail to be accredited by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, the highest standard in the field.

“This recognition is a direct result of the hard work and concerted commitment that the county, MetroHealth, and other partners have made over the last several years to improve operations, procedures, staffing, and services in the both the jail and accompanying criminal justice programs,” Executive Armond Budish said of the accreditation.

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