December 21, 2022
Progress on selecting a site and constructing a new county jail stalled in the second half of 2022, and action on this issue has been postponed until Executive-Elect Chris Ronayne takes office in January. That’s the headline; here is the background on the story:
The County has been working for approximately the last four years to develop plans for construction of a new jail. Two main factors drive the need for a new jail. The first is that the current jail, located at the Justice Center, had operated beyond its useful life. The major part of the jail was built in 1976, making it almost fifty years old. The second factor is that knowledge and technology have changed, and if we built a jail now, we would not built it the way it was built in 1976. The current jails cells are too small by current standards and there is little natural light. In addition, the current jail is a high-rise facility. Having to move inmates up and down elevators adds additional safety risks. It is also more expensive and more difficult to properly supervise a jail on several floors at multiple levels. The current almost universally accepted standard is to build the jail on one or two floors. Doing so requires a larger site that is not in the downtown area.
I consider operational problems at the current jail to be related more to management problems than facility problems; however, facility issues are not insignificant. A properly constructed new jail would make humane, safe, and cost-effective operation more achievable.
There remain advantages to operating the courts in the central downtown area, which is more accessible to the public and the law offices. The cost of transporting prisoners from the Justice Center to the jail is considered small compared to the benefits of operating the jail in a low-rise facility.
County leaders were desirous of avoiding the problems that occurred in building the Juvenile Justice Center (commonly known as the Taj Mahal). It was built much larger than necessary with more and larger courtrooms and other facilities than was required to meet the need. However, the judicial community was concerned that things would go too far in the opposite direction, and their concerns would not be met.
To try to bridge these differences, the Executive and Council about 2018 created the Executive Steering Committee, a 12-member board which included judicial representatives of several County Courts, the Cleveland Municipal Court, the Clerk of Court, the County Prosecutor, the County Defender, the County Executive, and the County Council President. It was decided that any determination by the Executive Steering Committee would require the affirmative vote of at least ten of the twelve members, meaning that any action would require a consensus or close to it. The Executive Steering Committee was tasked with developing plans for renovating or building new facilities for the County Jail and the Justice Center. The County hired Jeff Appelbaum’s Project Management Consultants to facilitate the process.
The Executive Steering Committee started with a review of very basic questions, such as:
1. Can either the jail or the justice center be renovated, or do we need to build new facilities?
2. Do the jail and the justice center need to be at the same location, or can they be at different locations?
3. Should we continue to have these facilities at their current location or should we find one or more new locations?
The consultant team did extensive research on what worked will in other cities and held numerous meetings with the Executive Steering Committee both as a group and individually. The arrival of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020 slowed down the process considerably. The consultant team and the Executive Steering Committee came to believe that the justice center could be renovated and can remain at its current location. However, the jail should be a new low-rise facility built on a larger site. Acquiring such a site in the immediate downtown area would be prohibitively expensive; therefore, the plan developed to find a site outside of the immediate downtown area, but hopefully fairly nearby. The other plan that developed was to give construction of a new jail priority over the renovations to the Justice Center.
From the beginning, the consultant team strongly urged from both a humanitarian and a cost perspective that the County take stronger action to maintain and reduce our jail population. They calculated that over a hypothetical 30-year lifetime, each additional cell built would cost $1.3 million for both construction and operations. These discussions provided additional impetus to County efforts to open a mental health and addiction Diversion Center, to create a central booking process to facilitate faster case handing and diversion, and to work harder on bail reform. The Executive Steering Committee approved an aspirational recommendation that we build the new jail at 1600 cells, somewhat smaller than our current 1760, but build it with room for expansion. However, to achieve that goal, we would have to reduce our current jail population to about 1400, since jail population varies and the population does not always match the different kinds of cells available. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC) must approve any jail plans prior to construction, and they will not approve a facility that they believe is insufficient to meet the need.
The consultants then assisted the Executive Steering Committee in developing and narrowing down a list of potential sites for the new jail. The site that rose to the top was a site of about 40 acres on Transport Road, near the main Post Office and the Community Based Correctional Facility. However, use of this site required a complex acquisition process involving relocation of the business currently located there. Also, extensive environmental remediation would be required, since the site had been previously used for a Standard Oil refinery and an asphalt plant. We overcame the relocation hurdle and reached a tentative agreement with the current owner. While technical analysis indicated that the site could be remediated to a high degree of safety, the environmental issues raised community concerns. The proposed site was also criticized as not sufficiently accessible to public transportation.
In the second half of 2022, two events derailed approval of the Transport Road site for the new jail. First, Lee Weingart and Chris Ronayne, the two candidates running for County Executive in the November 2022 election, stated publicly that they would not build the jail on this site. Also, three members of the Executive Steering Committee, enough votes to defeat a recommendation, required the County to conduct an additional study on whether the existing jail could be renovated. I voted against the $150,000 contract in the Board of Control as a waste of money, but the review was done, and confirmed that the existing jail could not be renovated. Nevertheless, as a result of this issue and environmental concerns, a majority of the Executive Steering Committee voted 6-5 against recommending purchase of the Transport Road site, far short of the 10-2 vote required to approve the recommendation. After these two events occurred, the Executive and the County Council set aside legislation to approve the purchase of the Transport Road Site. They also postponed legislation to extend the County’s 0.25% sales tax, which was set to expire in 2027, as a major funding mechanism for the jail construction.
Two additional complications have arisen, which complicate the jail project going forward. The first is that while we have opened the mental health and addiction Diversion Center and are starting on central booking, we have not made as much progress on jail population reduction as we had hoped. The current population stands at about 1600, compared to the 1400 target. As a result, the plan currently being discussed is to build the jail with 1900 cells. I strongly believe that we have more people in jail than need to be, especially people who haven’t been convicted of anything and are waiting for their cases to be resolved, and that jail population reduction must be a top priority of the entire community. I’m still hoping that we can take advantage of the delay, redouble our efforts, and achieve a significant reduction in jail population before we have to make a final decision on the size of the new jail.
The second complication results from the current supply chain difficulties and the supply chain environment. As a result the projected cost of the jail has been updated from $550 million to $700 million, and that’s assuming that we can build the jail at 1600 cells. If we go to 1900, we would require at least $750 million.
Council Chairperson of Public Safety Mike Gallagher was incensed at the delay and blamed a few bad actors and obstructionists for causing a delay of at least a couple years and cost the county tens of millions of dollars. However, I do not believe such an outcome is inevitable. I encouraged Executive-Elect Ronayne to keep the Jeff Appelbaum’s team, to take advantage of work that has already been done, and to exert Executive-Council authority to take action, with the Executive Steering Committee’s role being advisory, not determinative. I also urged him to use his personal leadership position to facilitate a community-wide effort to reduce the jail population. I also have hope that by the time we build the jail, the interest rate environment could improve from its currently very unfavorable condition. Savings on borrowing costs could offset increases in construction costs.
The new county jail will certainly be one of the premier County issues in 2023, and I will provide an update when there are new developments.