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The Now & Future County Jail

The problems at the Cuyahoga County Jail have been front and center ever since eight inmates died at the jail in 2018, four from suicide, three from overdoses, and one from cancer, with one additional suicide in 2019.

While serious challenges remain, the County Executive and Council have taken strong action to improve conditions at the jail, including the following:

  • Putting MetroHealth hospital in charge of all medical services at the jail and expanding health services. Previously, MetroHealth and county staff shared medical responsibilities, but the arrangement did not work well.

  • Hiring 45 additional corrections officers, with 15 more planned, to bring the number of corrections officers to 675.

  • Additional hiring is in progress to increase the corrections officers’ supervisory staff.

  • The County Executive has proposed using an outside vendor to run the food service operations at the jail, while continuing to use county employees to provide direct service.

  • More attention is being given to officer training and building maintenance.

  • The County Council has proposed a Charter Amendment, which will be on the ballot on November 5th to give the County Sheriff more independence and ability to create his/her own leadership team, while maintaining the office as an appointed professional position.

  • Purchase of large quantities of anti-suicide blankets and smocks that cannot be twisted into ropes.

  • Efforts have been made, with the help of the judges and other partners, to reduce overcrowding at the jail. Some prisoners have been transferred to other counties to relieve overcrowding. Judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys have been working to identify people who don’t need to be in jail and get them released or diverted. Progress has been uneven, but the current count of about 1850 at the downtown jail 200-300 less than it has averaged for most of the last couple years, and is less than 100 above its rated capacity of about 1765.

While all this is going on, we also realize that the County’s Justice Center is in poor condition, beyond its proper lifetime, and discussions are underway about what the next Justice Center will look like. A Justice Center Steering Committee has been created, consisting of 12 key stakeholders, including judges, the Clerk of Court, the County Prosecutor, the County Defender, the County Executive, and the President of County Council. Their intention is to create a plan of action within the next six months or so. The County hired Project Management Consultants, led by Jeff Appelbaum to help lead the process.

Some of the key questions to be decided are:

  • Should be build a new facility or renovate the existing space? If we build new, where should it be located?

  • Should the new jail be a one or two story facility on a larger piece of land, as opposed to the high rise jail we have now?

  • How many inmate cells should be built for the new facility?

  • How many court rooms and other judicial facilities need to be built?

  • How should diversion of the mentally ill and addicted be handled at our new facilities? Should the diversion facilities be part of the main complex or should they be located at an entirely different site.

I have played a lead role in encouraging the stakeholders to believe that we can make progress and force ourselves to make progress on bail reform, central booking, and mental health/addiction diversion by planning for a lower number of cells. I’ve received support from the consultant team, who strongly recommended that we not assume that current jail population trends will continue. I have reminded people that jail populations have quadrupled in the United States over the last 40-50 years, and even a retracement of half of that explosion in population would enable significantly lower jail populations.

As a result of these discussions, the stakeholders, at the September 17, 2019, meeting indicated a willingness to aim for a number of detention cells as low at 1600. This is contrast to the average of about 2100 we have maintained at the downtown jail for the last couple years and the 1850 most recently reported. Success in achieving a lower number will depend on achieving at least some concrete and sustainable success on population reduction initiatives (bail reform, central booking, and diversion programs) before construction is initiated.

This is a long process. I expect it will be 4-5 years at least before construction is begun on a new or renovated Justice Center. I will update this report as there are additional developments.

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