As Ohio jail staff dwindles and inmate population increases, assaults against officers rise
There have been 27 staff assaults at Cuyahoga County Jail since the beginning of the year
By Adam Ferrise
Advance Ohio Media
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Staffing at the Cuyahoga County Jail dwindled in recent months as officials grapple with high turnover and struggles to recruit and find new officers to hire.
The low staffing comes when the inmate population rose above 1,500 for the first time since September, and inmate assaults on officers are increasing, according to county statistics.
The morale among jail staff is at a low not seen since a crisis at the jail led to nine inmates dying in an 11 month-span in 2018 and early 2019, said Adam Chaloupka, an attorney for the Ohio Patrolmen's Benevolent Association union that represents officers.
"In some ways, the jail is worse than it's ever been," Chaloupka said. "Something has to give, or something's going to break. They can't retain officers. Every time there's problems, there's a crackdown on little things like filling out timecards properly. They need to treat officers with fairness and respect."
Staffing decreased from a high of 705 officers in February 2020 to 639 officers this week, well below the budgeted amount of 725 officers.
Low staffing during the 2018 crisis contributed to the discontent in the jail among both officers and inmates. A similar pattern emerged in recent months, Chaloupka said.
Officers have become more likely to call off, causing co-workers to be forced into working overtime to cover shifts. Those officers, in turn, call off their next shift, and the pattern repeats.
Inmates also have become increasingly more defiant in recent months. Chaloupka said inmates almost daily refuse to go into lockdown at the end of the night. There have been 27 staff assaults since the beginning of the year, including an inmate charged with sexual imposition after he grabbed and groped a female corrections officer, according to county and court records.
Inmate-on-inmate assaults are also trending up, with 137 in the first four months of the year. Both numbers put the county on pace to eclipse the total from 2020.
Cuyahoga County Public Safety Chief Robert Coury acknowledged the difficulties in keeping staffing levels where they need to be. Coury said the county struggled with the high turnover rate, which he attributed to a nationwide shortage of law enforcement officers in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020.
He also said it's challenging to recruit and retain new officers to work in a jail environment during the coronavirus pandemic.
"It's been increasingly difficult over the past year," Coury said. "Many people think it's the fact that law enforcement suffered reputational damage as the result of the George Floyd [murder] and other excessive force cases. And with COVID-19, many people don't want to come into a congregate living facility."
Coury said the county conducts recruiting drives and, in early 2021, tried to increase starting pay for new hires. The union rejected the offer because it didn't include raises for existing officers. Coury said the county is working on a new proposal but declined to provide details because it's still in the planning stages.
He also said jail officials continue to track and discipline officers who abuse sick leave, particularly on weekends. Dozens of officers called off, for example, during the weekend of the NFL Draft in Cleveland because they were not allowed to park downtown, Chaloupka said.
"Those who abuse their sick leave create a burden for others," Coury said. "Disciplining people out of the jail, we're losing officers, but ones we don't want there. We want officers there who want to protect our inmates and their fellow officers."
Officials said the rise in jail population is concerning, particularly heading into the summer months when police typically make more arrests.
Unlike in recent years, the jail population has less to do with unnecessarily high bonds to non-violent, low-level felons, officials said.
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Administrative Judge Brendan Sheehan said of the 1,144 inmates who are jailed on felony charges and awaiting trial, 1,036 are charged with third-degree felonies or higher, about 92 percent. The remaining nine percent have additional charges or probation or parole violations. Those inmates remain jailed until they can go before a judge.
Sheehan said there is reason for optimism. Trials, halted because of the coronavirus pandemic, resumed April 29. Since then, 100 inmates have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing. Eighty-two inmates are awaiting spots to open in treatment facilities and another 27 are sentenced and waiting for transfer to prison.
Coury said officials are working to find ways to get inmates with probation violations in front of a judge quicker. Cuyahoga County Public Defender Cullen Sweeney said he'd like to see officials take a harder look at some second- and third-degree felony cases to see if those inmates can be held on house arrest with GPS trackers.
"If the population goes up much more than 1,500, then you may have to take a harder look at some of the more difficult cases," Sweeney said. "A lot of times, you see a charge that's more serious, and after pre-trials and discovery, there's an understanding that the case is not what everyone thought it was at the beginning. In those cases, we'd work with the judges and prosecutors to get a lower bond."
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