Ex-warden tells FBI, AG he was powerless to stop deaths, flow of drugs in Ohio jail

Eric Ivey criticized the sheriff's ability to conduct meaningful investigations into wrongdoing at the Cuyahoga County Jail


By Adam Ferrise
Cleveland.com

CLEVELAND — The pressure was mounting on the well-dressed shoulders of Eric Ivey as he walked into the Ohio Attorney General’s satellite office in downtown Cleveland.

The former warden of the Cuyahoga County Jail was in charge of the lockup as inmates died at an unprecedented rate. Months earlier, the U.S. Marshals Service singled him out as one of the root causes of widespread dysfunction in the jail, with problems so deeply rooted that marshals’ inspectors called it one of the country’s worst jails.

In July 2019, Eric Ivey agreed to sit down with prosecutors from the attorney general's office and FBI investigators who offered him some protection from the criminal charges he faced.
In July 2019, Eric Ivey agreed to sit down with prosecutors from the attorney general's office and FBI investigators who offered him some protection from the criminal charges he faced. (Photo/Cory Shaffer of Cleveland.com via TNS)

In July 2019, Ivey agreed to sit down with prosecutors from the attorney general’s office and FBI investigators who offered him some protection from the criminal charges he faced in exchange for interviews and potential testimony in future criminal cases.

A few weeks before his interviews with investigators, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine called the situation at Ivey’s jail a “crisis” and ordered a state oversight. The Ohio Attorney General Office filed criminal charges as part of its investigation against Ivey, accusing him and several other jail employees of obstructing an investigation into an inmate’s death.

Once hailed on the MSNBC television show Lockup: Extended Stay as the no-nonsense associate warden, Ivey came to his July 1 interview ready to unload. Within hours of sitting with investigators, he’d admit to strapping an inmate featured on the show to a restraint chair, wheeling him into an elevator with no surveillance cameras and slugging him in the face with TV crew still inside the building. He returned later in the month to give a follow-up interview to investigators.

Cleveland.com obtained the Ivey recordings as part of a records request for the investigative file of one of several inmate beatings that ended in criminal convictions, giving the first glimpse into the former warden’s mindset as conditions in the jail reached horrific lows.

By then, much of the narrative of the failures in the jail were widely known. Nine inmates died in 11 months, beginning in the summer of 2018. The number of inmates exploded. Too few corrections officers making low pay led to high burnout among officers. This resulted in day-long lockdowns of inmates crammed into every corner of crowded jail pods. All of it happened as Ivey’s boss, then-Jail Director Ken Mills, slashed basic costs for inmates while taking on a crush of new inmates under a plan to regionalize the jails throughout the county as a way to make money.

However, Ivey made several admissions during his interviews with investigators, including that drugs poured into the jail. While Ivey suspected corrections officers brought the drugs in, he felt he had no way to stop it. Sheriff’s detectives, who are in charge of investigating wrongdoing at the jail, were no help.

Mills, according to Ivey, repeatedly clashed with then-Sheriff Cliff Pinkney and medical officials, some of whom gave grave warnings about inmate safety before the deaths, all while keeping an eye on his budget to impress Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish.

Ivey said that he felt he could only do so much to fix the jail’s problems and that he never sought out a solution that addressed systemic issues that led to the string of inmate deaths.

Many of the problems Ivey detailed continue, even after he left. Drugs getting into the jail remains an issue. Corrections officers released several inmates from lockup by mistake. County officials still grapple with the rising inmate population, and three more inmates have died there in 2020, including one of a drug overdose.

Attempts to reach Ivey were unsuccessful, and his attorney Jonathan Macdonald did not return several messages seeking comment. Mills’ attorney, Kevin Spellacy, did not return messages. Cuyahoga County spokeswoman Mary Louise Madigan said she could not comment on the story because of several pending lawsuits against the county that accuse jail officials of mistreatment of inmates and inmate deaths.

Ivey eventually pleaded guilty in September 2019 to misdemeanor charges of obstruction of justice and falsification. Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Nancy Fuerst sentenced him to probation and 200 hours of community service.

His name is one of many on a list of potential witnesses slated to testify against Mills, who faces criminal charges that accuse him of negligently making decisions that made the jail unsafe, including blocking the hiring of nurses. Mills previously pleaded not guilty. His trial has was delayed for months as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

County officials never punished Ivey. He agreed to resign as part of his plea agreement.

Before he left the position he worked for 28 years, he sat down with investigators and his attorney and gave his insights into the inner workings of what happened under his watch.

‘I don’t connect red-zoning with deaths’

Ivey was still working as an associate warden at the jail when he gave his interview with investigators. The county demoted him not for his performance or the problems at the jail but because he once signed a performance review for his wife’s supervisor. Ivey’s wife, Kathy, is still a corrections officer.

Investigators asked him if he ever connected the fact that widespread lockdowns of inmates increased alongside the deaths. He emphatically fought against the argument that the lockdowns, known as red-zoning, affected the physical and mental well-being of the more than 2,000 inmates at the packed facility.

“I don’t connect red-zoning with the deaths,” Ivey said. “It does make them angry because they want to be out of their cells. It’s an extra responsibility on officers, but I don’t say this happens [the deaths] because of that [red-zoning].”

Ivey said neither he nor Mills ever approached the skyrocketing increase in deaths as a systemic issue. He said he looked at the deaths individually to see what, if anything, he should do to solve individual problems.

“I did everything I could with the resources I had,” Ivey said, while acknowledging he could have pushed Mills and Pinkney harder to hire more corrections officers.

He said two deaths stuck out as preventable — the deaths of Joseph Arquillo and Brenden Kiekisz.

Arquillo died of a drug overdose in the jail after corrections officers failed to check on him for two hours as he lay dying or dead. Ivey’s criminal charges stemmed from ordering his officers to turn off their body cameras during the investigation into Arquillo’s death.

Keikisz hanged himself in his jail cell months after jail medical officials for weeks pleaded with county officials to change how they book inmates into the jail to ensure inmates got medical screenings, which are necessary to identify suicidal inmates.

Jail staff did not make those changes until after officers found Keikisz hanging in his cell before he died.

In his interviews, Ivey said he and Mills decided to change the jail booked inmates to cut down on overtime pay for officers. He told investigators that Mills watched real-time surveillance video from his office of the booking process and believed too many officers stood around the booking area doing nothing.

He moved the medical screenings from the area where officers booked inmates to a separate location on the seventh floor of the jail, a smaller place where he believed required fewer officers for booking. The change meant the county booked inmates into jail without medical screenings. Kiekisz was one of those inmates, according to documents previously obtained by cleveland.com.

Ivey, however, said he had no answers for the other seven deaths.

“You have to look at them on a case-by-case basis,” Ivey said. “Some guy comes back from court and hangs himself. What are you going to do about that?”

Asked about the statements of Gary Brack, the former nursing director at the jail fired for speaking out about the safety of inmates at the jail shortly before the first inmate died, Ivey said he still believed Brack’s warning lacked merit, although he couldn’t explain why.

“How is he going to do know if someone walks into their cell and hangs himself?” Ivey said.

“But it did happen,” an investigator said. “He was right.”

“I agree,” Ivey responded. “But there was no way he’d know someone was going to hang themselves or get drugs in there and overdose.”

‘It’s really lax down there. It’s really easy to bring drugs in.’

Investigators also questioned Ivey at length about the flow of drugs into the jail that continues to this day.

The investigators said they believed that the jail was “heavily influenced” by the Heartless Felons street gang and that some inmates they interviewed told them it was easier to get drugs in the jail than on the street. Ivey did not appear surprised by the statement.

“I don’t know if it’s that easy, but I know it’s easy,” Ivey said. “I think there are some officers that assist in this. I don’t know who they are, but I have a real strong feeling that’s what it is.”

The county classifies “drug incidents” at the jail in several different ways. The number includes people found with drugs after their arrests or employees and inmates found with drugs. Those numbers exploded from 22 in 2017 to 61 in 2018 and 83 in 2019, nearly all under Ivey’s watch.

The trend continues in Ivey’s absence. As of Nov. 17 this year, there were 73 drug incidents in the jail, according to county statistics.

Four of the nine inmates who died between June 2018 and May 2019 died of a drug overdose. The deaths sparked investigations by the FBI and Ohio Attorney General’s office.

Ivey said it’s easy for officers to hide the drugs when they walk into the jail. The officers walk through an often broken metal detector, and that an officer stationed at the entrance to search fellow officers often look the other way because they don’t want to police their co-workers.

“It’s really lax down there,” Ivey said. “It’s really easy to bring drugs in.”

He said he believes county officials need to buy a body scanner, similar to the one used on inmates, to search corrections officers for drugs.

Ivey defended himself several times during the interview, saying that he wasn’t always aware of the drugs being brought into the jail, including that he had no idea about the drug ring involving Heartless Felons and corrections officers uncovered in 2019. He also said he “didn’t bring many ideas” to his supervisors on how to stop it.

Ivey said he once asked then-interim Jail Director George Taylor about bringing a drug-sniffing dog to the jail, but Taylor nixed the idea because it could have opened the county to lawsuits.

“Once George Taylor said no, I didn’t do anything after that,” Ivey said. “Maybe in hindsight, I should have done more.”

He said he instead relied on age-old tactics of raiding cells looking for drugs and using sheriff’s deputies to search incoming officers for drugs. That only happened when there were deputies available, Ivey said.

Once the drugs get to the inmates, the officers allow them to use drugs openly, Ivey said.

When asked if officers allow the drug use to keep “whatever control they have,” Ivey said: “Yes. I would say that absolutely could be a reason.”

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office investigator Robert DeSimone said he warned in 2013 that investigators knew about corrections officers who smuggled drugs into the jail. DeSimone said officers later told him that Ivey shut down the investigation.

Ivey denied doing so.

Sheriff issues

Ivey said the county often hamstrings jail officials, keeping them from dealing with officers who bring drugs into the jail or commit other crimes. The jail has no internal investigators and must pass along any information about possible crimes to the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department.

“One problem we have in the jail is that we don’t have our own investigators,” Ivey said. “A lot of times, we give them something, and it goes on the backburner. It’s kind of ‘we’ll get to it when we get to it’ unless there’s some concrete evidence, and then they’ll go to talk to the inmates.”

Ivey criticized the sheriff’s ability to conduct meaningful investigations into wrongdoing at the jail.

The U.S. Marshals in 2018 found the sheriffs did not investigate the deaths at the jail; a finding backed up once the county released the investigative records into the death.

The sheriff’s department also did not pursue criminal cases in several of the beatings of inmates by jail guards that eventually resulted in criminal charges once the Ohio Attorney General’s Office took over the investigation.

Ivey pointed to two examples of incidents that fell through the cracks after he reported them. The first involved a jail officer suspected of bringing a cellphone to an inmate. The second involved an officer suspected of having some connection to the Heartless Felons.

Ivey said both times he asked the sheriff to investigate but never heard back from detectives.

“We were really trying to pursue those,” Ivey said.

Issues with staff

Ivey told investigators he believed some, but “not many” officers have affiliations with the Heartless Felons, Cleveland’s largest and most violent street gang whose roots are in local jails and state prisons, and have been tied to drug dealing, murder and a slew of other violent crimes.

However, he said hiring was an issue at the jail and that many new officers mingle with the inmates.

He said most of the jail’s new hires are typically the same age and from the same neighborhoods as the inmates.

“I think what happens is they know these guys coming in, and they favor them because they know them,” Ivey said. “I think they take advantage of that.”

He gave an example of a jail officer fired after investigators discovered she gave nude photos of herself to inmates.

“They’re the same age. They know each other,” Ivey said. “Inmates try to make them prey. That’s a problem.”

Ivey said longstanding issues of attracting enough new officers when older ones retire results in chronic understaffing. He said he and Mills lessened new applicants’ requirements so enough prospective officers could make it through the hiring process. The county also would later increase the base pay of new hires after it was reported that Cuyahoga County jail officers had the lowest starting pay among similar-sized county jails throughout Ohio.

We knew they were understaffed and wanted more, but we hired as fast as we could,” Ivey said.

Mills

Investigators focused much of their questioning on Mills, who is the highest-ranking jail employee to be charged in the attorney general’s office probe.

Ivey gave a few insights into Mills, and several that were already known, including that the Mills and his supposed supervisor, Pinkney, clashed repeatedly.

He said Pinkney and Mills disliked each other from the beginning. After Mills’ first day, Pinkney told Ivey: “I don’t like him. I don’t want him here,” according to Ivey.

“There wasn’t any real communication between the two,” Ivey said. “They talked only when they had to talk. It was kind of like the relationship was doomed from day one.”

Ivey said Mills kept a keen eye out for reducing the amount of overtime paid to officers and other expenditures in order to remain in good standing in Budish’s eyes.

Mills also focused his attention on regionalizing the county’s jails, believing that he would lose his job if he couldn’t complete the project, Ivey said.

“I remember that he said it was important … that for him to work for the executive, that he needed to have the same vision,” Ivey told investigators.

Ivey said both Pinkney and Mills told him that they had marching orders from Budish to find ways to cut costs. Ivey said Mills focused on cutting costs for medical care, food service and overtime wherever possible.

Ivey said he found it odd Mills dabbled in those areas because he thought that was outside Mills’ job description as the jail director. Mills, however, watched live video from his office of the medical unit and thought too many nurses were unproductive.

“In my opinion, that’s not in his scope,” Ivey said. Jail medical officials “have their own directors. It shouldn’t have affected him unless there was some concern with security.”

Investigators asked why Ivey thought Mills fought with medical officials.

“My opinion is that it was almost like a power thing,” Ivey said. “Knowing the type of person he was, he was very controlling of things that he thought were in his realm.”

Inmate beating

Ivey, as part of the plea agreement, admitted that he beat an inmate in 2012. Because he admitted to the incident, prosecutors agreed not to pursue criminal charges in the case.

Ivey’s accounting of the case is similar to the facts of other cases where jail officers were charged with strapping inmates to restraint chairs and hitting them.

According to Ivey’s telling: The incident happened on the day MSNBC cameras were at the jail filming a segment for the show Locked Up: Extended Stay. At some point, he and inmate John Schmidt were on camera together.

Ivey said he “didn’t remember” if it was unusual for him, as an associate warden, to be involved with a routine act of helping corrections officers escort an inmate from his cell to the medical unit. He said Schmidt was a “problematic inmate.”

Ivey said Schmidt repeatedly hurled insults at Ivey, including about Ivey’s wife. Ivey said he and several officers strapped Schmidt to a restraint chair and took him to the jail’s medical unit.

Schmidt continued with the insults. Ivey and the officers wheeled Schmidt into the jail’s service elevator, where Ivey knew there were no surveillance cameras.

He “got pissed off” and hit Schmidt in the head three times with opened-handed strikes.

Ivey told investigators that none of the other officers had body camera videos on at the time of the incident, which violated the jail’s policy. He said he thought the officers likely turned off their body cameras because they were in the medical unit and sometimes turned their cameras off while waiting there.

Ivey said from that point on he used semantics to deny that he hit an inmate. He told the investigators he would always tell people that he never threw a punch but rather struck an inmate with his open hand.

“My saying was I never punched him in the head,” he said.

Ivey said no one ever investigated the incident. He said he once approached then-warden Ronald Shobert about rumors of the incident.

“I went to the warden at the time and said people are going around saying I punched this inmate in the head,” Ivey said. “I said it’s not their job to investigate, it’s yours. I never heard anything else. No one ever approached me.”

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