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'Inhumane' Jail Conditions Could Cost Ohio County Millions

The Cuyahoga County Corrections Center in downtown Cleveland has been under increasing scrutiny since the deaths of nine inmates in the past 13 months.

The Cuyahoga County Corrections Center in downtown Cleveland has been under increasing scrutiny since the deaths of nine inmates in the past 13 months. Tony Dejak/AP

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Cuyahoga County jail made national headlines when videos of abuse behind bars went viral earlier this year. Now some county officials are saying taxpayers will pay the price.

The stone facade of the Cuyahoga County Corrections Center rises far above the downtown Cleveland sidewalk outside, presenting an imposing barrier for outside observers who seek to understand the inner workings of the jail. But, recently, viral videos showing abuse of people held there have shown a bright light on the actions of the jail administration. As the videos, and news that nine incarcerated people died there in the last 13 months, circulated throughout the area, officials have begun to worry about the future cost of lawsuits and settlements.

“The costs are very real, and while we don’t know exactly what they will be, the calculus puts us between $50 and 80 million. And that’s just next year,” said Cuyahoga County Councilman Michael Gallagher, the chairman of the Public Safety Committee. Gallagher reached that number after evaluating past settlements the county has reached with people and families who sued the jail for abuse or neglect resulting in serious injury or death.

It seems likely now that the cases caught on video will result in settlements. In one, a correctional officer turned off his body cameras before joining another officer in beating a man restrained in a wheelchair, who suffered a concussion from the attack. In another, officers pepper sprayed a woman in a restraint chair. The final video released in June showed officers ignoring a man who had collapsed in his cell from an overdose for over two hours; he later died in a hospital. (The videos were released after Cleveland.com submitted a court complaint stating that surveillance footage in the jail should be publicly available.) So far, ten current and former jail officials have been accused of crimes.

One person, who has since filed a lawsuit against the county in federal court, also alleged that officers threatened him into silence after beating him, saying “if you tell anyone, something else is going to happen."

A representative from the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail that usually holds between 2,100 and 2,4000 people, said they cannot comment on current lawsuits.

These cases, along with several others before them, led to the indictment of some jail officials on charges of assault, unlawful restraint, and tampering with evidence. They also resulted in intervention from the state and the federal government. Ohio Gov. Mark DeWine, a Republican, ordered monthly inspections of the jail. The U.S. Marshals Service, following an investigation, released a report calling the conditions of the jail “inhumane,” saying that they violate the constitutional rights of people detained there. 

Following the release of the report, Peter J. Elliott, the U.S. Marshal for the Northern District of Ohio, said that “the problems are very, very long-standing...they’ve been going on for decades.”

Gallagher agreed that outdated facilities have contributed to poor care for decades. “Our jail is 25 years past its due date, so this is an issue that should have been taken care of back then,” he said. “This really points the finger at everyone elected in the county for the past 25 years, and asks ‘what have you done?’” 

That lack of action will likely lead to serious problems for government services that will have reduced funding following the settlements. “Every county gets sued, but we’re dealing with a situation that none of us were prepared for,” Gallagher said. The county already has an anticipated $20 million financial deficit for next year, and the settlements or awards from trials will likely create further financial discomfort. “Probably every single government service will be affected by this,” he said. “To say anything less would be a fantasy.”

In addition to calculating the potential financial implications of abuse at the jail, the county is also trying to think proactively about improvements to conditions. “Right now, we hear a lot about assaults and deaths in the jail, but it’s not just about that. We have ancillary lawsuits about food, medical services, accommodations—to the point where they’re being filed almost every day,” Gallagher said. 

The county is working on plans for a new jail—one that builds out rather than up, to mitigate risks from fires and other evacuation situations—and closed a severely overcrowded satellite facility. They also went on a hiring spree for new correctional officers, a new jail director, and a new warden. But the most impactful change, said Gallagher, will be management reform for medical services at the jail. The council had been pushing for a local hospital, MetroHealth, to take over services for the past six years, and they finally began the transition at the beginning of this year. With that change came an approval from the council to spend more on inmate medical care. Earlier this year, the county agreed to a 3-year, $42 million contract with MetroHealth to take control of medical services in all county jails.

But while conditions in the jail improve, Gallagher acknowledged that the council’s current work doesn’t excuse the lack of movement for the past few decades, or provide justice to the people who suffered abuse at the hands of correctional officers. In the meantime, council members are still searching for answers as to what led to a culture of abuse and inhumane conditions in the jail. They held a hearing this week with Sheriff Cliff Pinkney, who is retiring August 2, but Pinkney refused to answer any questions due to ongoing civil and criminal cases. 

Councilman Scott Tuma engaged in a frustrated back and forth with Pinkney’s lawyer. “Well, I guess we should just turn the lights off and go home, because this was an absolute waste of time,” he said.

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty. 

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