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U.S. Marshals Report: Ohio County Jail “One of the Worst in the Country”

by Matt Clarke 

One week after the release of a report by the U.S. Marshals Service on November 21, 2018, which described Ohio’s Cuyahoga County jail system as “one of the worst in the country,” jail administrator Ken Mills resigned. Citing the report’s findings, seven prisoners at the facility filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on December 20, 2018. And after eight prisoners died within a six-month period in 2018, activists protested outside the home of County Executive Armond Budish in suburban Cleveland.

In January 2019, Cuyahoga County announced a new contract with private healthcare provider MetroHealth that will add much-needed medical staff at the jail. But all 34 Common Pleas judges in the county said they no longer trust assurances from Budish and Sheriff Clifford Pinkney that problems at the facility will be corrected.

Mills was indicted on January 19, 2019, accused of lying to the County Council at a May 2018 meeting about his “role in blocking the hiring of necessary nursing staff for jail facilities.” The indictment also accused him of lying to investigators with the U.S. Marshals Service about exchanges he had with an unnamed “high-level Cuyahoga County official.”

Mills, who had served for just over three years, faces felony charges of tampering with records and telecommunications fraud, plus four misdemeanor counts of falsification and two misdemeanor counts of obstructing official business. 

Hired in 2014 as the director of public safety by Budish’s predecessor, Mills’ job was to oversee the county’s emergency management and administration of its law enforcement database. After Budish took office, Mills was made the director of regional corrections even though he had no prior experience running or working in jails.

Budish had requested the U.S. Marshals report after seven jail prisoners died from June through September 2018. The eighth death, of prisoner Brenden Kiekisz in December 2018, was also the fourth by suicide out of 55 reported suicide attempts at the facility that year. Around 30 protestors gathered outside the county executive’s residence on December 31, 2018 to demand better jail conditions.

“It’s our duty to hold him accountable,” said LaTonya Goldsby with Black Lives Matter Cleveland, who was among the protestors. “And if that means initiating a recall for him, that’s what we’ll do.”

The U.S. Marshals report found six of seven areas inspected at the jail placed prisoners “at risk,” while criticizing the facility for overcrowding, understaffing, mixing juvenile offenders with adults, excessive lockdowns, inadequate medical and mental health care, denial of basic hygiene and even food and water, as well as failure to comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act standards.

Both Budish and Sheriff Pinkney said they were stunned by the report, though just two weeks prior to its release, Judge John J. Russo had written to Budish to complain about poor conditions at the jail and the number of prisoner deaths. Russo said he could not ignore the effect of those conditions, which were “failing to meet the needs of a very fragile and volatile prison population.” His letter specifically cited understaffing that caused some prisoners to wait a month or more to see medical and psychiatric staff and obtain prescriptions. 

The U.S. Marshals report noted that not only was there an insufficient number of medical personnel but many of those on staff lacked certification. Specifically, four medical employees’ licenses had expired, one licensed practical nurse had no license, a medical technical assistant lacked a diploma and other staff had only partial certification or board actions listed on their certification without the disposition being documented. 

The jail has experienced significant turnover in medical personnel. Former jail nursing director Marcus Harris left in 2018, as did former medical director Gary Brack, who was forced to resign after he told the Cuyahoga County Council that Mills was meddling in the administration of the jail’s health care, preventing the hiring of additional nurses and creating an unsafe environment by reducing security in the medical unit. 

The facility’s OB-GYN left last year and its only psychiatrist departed in April 2018, leaving all mental healthcare in the hands of a single nurse practitioner who worked 10 hours a day, four days a week. Meanwhile, the county struggled to find nurses willing to accept the low hourly pay at the jail – $20.78 for licensed practical nurses and $27.06 for registered nurses. 

That’s about $5.00 an hour lower than the salaries paid by MetroHealth, whose new contract to provide medical services at the jail will add $5 million to the budget, along with 32 new staff positions, improved recruitment and expanded treatment. 

Overcrowding is a root problem at the jail; rated for 1,765 prisoners, it was holding 2,420 at the time of the U.S. Marshals report. The facility also had just 576 of 677 guard positions filled. One possible reason was the low hourly wage rate for guards, of $15.31. 

This disparity between the excess number of prisoners and unfilled guard positions led to “red zoning,” in which one guard was supervising 100 to 200 prisoners in housing areas that were often kept on lockdown for up to 27 hours or longer – 12 days in one case. Prisoners were routinely denied medication, showers, recreation and visits to the medical unit. Additionally, up to a dozen prisoners were found unsupervised and locked in a two-person cell that had neither toilet facilities nor water, while other prisoners – including two pregnant women – were found sharing mattresses while forced to sleep on the floor. 

The jail maintained a Security Response Team (SRT) composed of guards – known as “Men in Black” due to their uniforms – who were physically and psychologically abusive. The U.S. Marshals observed SRT members “verbally abusing and demonstrating aggressive behavior” during their inspection. Some members who escorted prisoners to be interviewed by the Marshals openly called them “snitches.” 

As a result of the investigation by the U.S. Marshals Service, conducted in October and November 2018, two guards were charged with disciplinary offenses for improper use of force. Christopher Perdue, an SRT member, was accused of attacking a 27-year-old Muslim prisoner while he was praying. Another guard, Darriell Hayes, reportedly assaulted a prisoner suffering from Tourette Syndrome, leaving him confined to a wheelchair while he undergoes physical therapy to relearn how to walk. Perdue had been employed at the jail for one year, Hayes for five years.

Further, the U.S. Marshals found the jail’s food did not meet daily calorie requirements, was improperly refrigerated and stored in an area that “reeked of dead vermin.” Prisoners requiring special medical diets were often overlooked and not fed. Also unfed were prisoners who incurred the warden’s displeasure, as withholding food was used as a disciplinary measure. Other sanctions, including placement in isolation, were imposed without a disciplinary hearing or due process.

Overall, the report found six areas in which the jail put prisoners at risk: safety and sanitation, use of restrictive housing, food service, poor administration and management, medical care, and security and control. The first four areas were deemed “unsatisfactory,” and the last two “marginal.”

Despite overcrowding in the county’s jail system, for years Budish had pushed to consolidate it with Cleveland’s city jail, claiming the merger would add $5.5 million to county coffers over two years. Cleveland and many of the smaller cities in Cuyahoga County have already signed up to house their prisoners in the county’s jail system for a daily rate of $99 per prisoner. Since the U.S. Marshals report was released, Budish put further consolidation on hold, saying he had only been aware of state inspections that found the jail was overcrowded and that some prisoners failed to receive required medical screenings. 

But jail staff said the Mills administration failed to take their concerns into account, largely ignoring some 60 formal grievances. Water remained shut off in sections of the facility and employees continued to serve prisoners rotten food on moldy trays, with some guards left to oversee several hundred prisoners by themselves. 

Former jail detainee Cecil Fluker sued the county in June 2018, claiming the meal trays sickened him due to black mold. He also alleged maggots were found in the food. 

In August 2018, the union representing guards at the jail filed an Unfair Labor Practices complaint against the county for its blanket denial of grievances over forced overtime, overcrowding, “red-zoning” and officer safety. As a result of the complaint, an agreement was reached in January 2019 to re-institute a Labor Management Committee composed of members split between the union and county officials. Monthly meetings will begin in March 2019, with a mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

“What really started to upset me and our members, is that we’d go in [to the grievance process] thinking we’d have a solution,” said attorney Adam Chaloupka, with the Ohio Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (OPBA). “But then the grievance gets denied. Then nothing ever happened.”

“If the issue doesn’t involve a collective bargaining agreement, there’s no enforcement mechanism,” agreed Dan Leffler, another OPBA attorney. “Then it’s left to the county to take those under advisement to decide what they do with it or not do with it.”

The union’s most recent grievances include one filed in October 2018 when a guard was left overseeing 200 prisoners, and another in January 2019 following a prisoner’s suicide attempt, when one guard was left to watch over 192 prisoners.

The jail’s warden at the time, Eric Ivey, privately told his staff that “jail leadership, and a change in culture within the Corrections Center for improvement is currently being reviewed,” the OPBA said. Cuyahoga County spokeswoman Mary Louise Madigan did not address the union’s grievances, issuing a statement that said the county is “working on addressing all the issues in the U.S. Marshal’s report.”

Ivey was demoted to associate warden in February 2019, reportedly due to violations of the county’s nepotism policy. That violation was related to Ivey’s supervision of his wife’s supervisor for several months, when his wife was employed as a guard in the jail’s visitation area. He faces another investigation for withholding food from prisoners as a form of punishment, failing to make required checks of prisoners held in solitary and failing to supervise the Security Response Team.

Attorney Sarah Gelsomino, with Friedman & Gilbert, joined with the Cleveland branch of the NAACP and the law firm of Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP to help seven Cuyahoga County jail prisoners file a federal class-action suit challenging the conditions documented in the U.S. Marshals report. Their lawsuit describes physical abuse by the SRT, overcrowding that resulted in the denial of medical care and attorney visits, and unsanitary and inedible food. They are seeking court intervention to correct those unconstitutional conditions, and the case remains pending. See: Clay v. Cuyahoga County, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ohio), Case No. 1:18-cv-02929-SO.

In a February 6, 2019 news report, county officials said the jail’s population had been reduced to around 1,865, and “dozens of changes” had been made at the facility, including additional staff training. In regard to disciplinary procedures, prisoners are now afforded a hearing before a disciplinary board and can appeal adverse decisions. The county said meals at the facility had been improved and the jail was trying to hire more guards. Extended lockdowns remain an ongoing problem, however, and in February 2019 the Cuyahoga County Council approved $3.5 million to hire 60 additional guards as a way to reduce the lockdowns. 



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