Ohio county jail administrator has 11-point wish list for a new jail
After touring newly built jails, Cuyahoga County Jail Administrator Ronda Gibson has design ideas to improve inmate processing, housing and CO training areas
By Kaitlin Durbin
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Cuyahoga County hasn’t decided yet what to do about its aging jail, but two of the entities that oversee its operations recently shared their wish lists for a new and improved facility.
Jail Administrator Ronda Gibson and the county’s Department of Public Works’ facilities management team, which performs maintenance and oversees capital repairs in the corrections center, have long advocated to build a new jail outside of downtown, which they believe will improve conditions for both inmates and staff.
The current jail is too small and too old to accommodate the kinds of changes they say are needed to not only address physical deficiencies in the jail – small cells, overcrowding, restricted supervision, technology barriers, and deteriorating infrastructure and mechanical systems – but also quality-of-life improvements – more natural light, fresh air, expanded recreation and better organization to allow inmates greater access to services.
They toured half a dozen newly constructed jails across the U.S. to see how those facilities supported progressive corrections practices and what innovations could be imitated in Cuyahoga. Franklin County’s new jail, which opened earlier this month, stood out as a model to follow.
The two-story jail, located about 15 minutes from downtown Columbus, features communal housing pods with medical, video visitation and programming rooms built in, cleveland.com learned on a recent tour. There are TVs, windows, recreation areas, dedicated mental health wings, and bays that let in fresh air on nice days.
Cuyahoga wants those things, too, and more.
Cleveland.com asked Gibson and Public Works officials for examples of what features they like about Franklin County’s jail that they would like to see here. Initially, the county declined to provide the lists, but released them later in response to a records request.
On Gibson’s 11-point wish list was a large sally port, the area where inmates are brought after arrest, that could accommodate buses, medical vehicles and multiple police cars at the same time. It also would have space for law enforcement to complete paperwork before intake and host a clerk of courts office, where eligible inmates could post their bonds without ever being booked into the jail.
In the housing units, she wants netting on the upper floors to prevent falls or jumping, garage doors that open for fresh air and built-in recreation areas that are more accessible to inmates. She also touted the ability to have four-man cells she likened to “mini dorms” and “time out” spaces to temporarily hold inmates “either for cool down periods or to await escort to a different unit.”
For staff, she wants a central control room with state-of-the-art technology that offers more flexibility in security and oversight. And she wants a larger roll call and training room where 100-plus employees could receive instruction at the same time, space for employee lockers, and a dining room where employees can eat, store food and step outside for a break.
Public Works employees wrote a similar list, but with greater focus on infrastructure improvements.
Right now, the site around Cuyahoga County’s jail is congested, with support services, law enforcement and other jail operations all funneling through “restrictive” dock or sally port drives that create a logistical nightmare, are inconveniently located, and can only accommodate certain sizes of vehicles. In the single-lane sally port, for example, vehicles are constantly hitting the overhead doors, and a recent inspection found concrete deterioration, the department said.
By comparison, Franklin’s site has space for multiple vehicles of all sizes, multiple loading docks to get supplies closer to where they need to go, and separate traffic routes just for jail operations.
The department also envied a design feature in Franklin’s jail that allows maintenance workers to access utilities and make fixes from outside of the housing units or individual cells. This prevents inmates from having to be locked down or moved while the work is ongoing, a logistical problem Cuyahoga’s staff say they regularly struggle to navigate.
A horizontal, two-story jail would also make life easier, they said, noting that Cuyahoga’s jail is “critically reliant” on elevators to transport goods, services and inmates between its two buildings, each 9-10 stories high and only connected via a skybridge on one floor. Those elevators have “frequent service outages” that disrupt operations, the department said.
One area where Cuyahoga is already implementing best-practices is in Central Booking.
Cuyahoga started building the $3 million Central Booking area, modeled after Franklin County’s, last year in hopes it will expedite the court process by putting crime suspects in contact with lawyers more quickly and allowing for quicker reviews of charges by prosecutors. It is also expected to reduce the jail’s population, as early pre-trial assessments allow eligible inmates to be released on bond.
The space recently opened and is expected to be fully operational by August 1, but even it still apparently falls short of expectation.
“Central Booking at Frankin County is what we strived to achieve but were unable due to the limits of the existing facility booking area,” Public Works wrote in their list. “Our Central Booking area is much improved from the previous booking area, in that it expanded the area significantly, but facility limits still constrained our layout.”
The list did not provide details about what more the county wanted from the space that it did not get.
Many of the features county officials say they want have already been incorporated into early designs for what a new facility could look like, but it’s not clear whether a major renovation of the existing jail could satisfy some of the same needs. Members of a steering committee helping guide the fate of the jail are funding a second study that may answer that question, as well as provide an updated price tag for what a renovation would cost.
In the meantime, county officials continue advancing plans as if they are building a new jail, despite not yet formally making that decision. The county is preparing to purchase property for the new construction and has nearly everything ready to start negotiating on a maximum project cost.