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Cuyahoga County Sheriff Stripped of Jail Commissary Control After $500,000 in Inventory Goes Missing

by David M. Reutter

Ohio’s Cuyahoga County Council took control of the county jail commissary on March 28, 2023, after a watchdog found over $500,000 worth of items were missing. The investigation also found that monies from the canteen fund were misappropriated by the Sheriff’s Office, which has been operating under interim Sheriff Joseph Greiner.

But even jail guards questioned the county’s next decision, awarding a contract to run the commissary to Keefe Commissary Network. That’s because Keefe owner TKC Holdings also owns Trinity Services Group, the contractor long criticized for poor quality meals served to detainees and prisoners.

After receiving a complaint about donations of expired food from the Cuyahoga County Jail commissary, the County’s Inspector General (IG) began an investigation. That uncovered problems from 2020 and 2021, ranging from shoddy bookkeeping to a lack of oversight that “increases the risk of theft or unauthorized transactions going undetected,” the IG said.

The IG found $376,206 in recorded commissary inventory that wasn’t in the warehouse. It guessed there were accounting errors, or waste from expired food, or even potential theft. Around the time the report was issued in June 2022, three guards were fired for stealing commissary snacks for themselves and detainees. [See: PLN, Aug. 2022, p.63.]

Investigators were also “unable to trace” the inventory from 33 invoices totaling nearly $55,000. And they found $1,788 in expired chips, flour tortillas, and iced honey buns that had to be discarded. Another $72,277 in unauthorized write-offs of damaged or spoiled items was found from 2020. All told, that’s $505,271 in missing items.

All revenue from commissary sales is supposed to be used to restock supply, pay commissary staff and provide skills training and education for detainees. Surplus in the account may also be used to purchase technology to prevent contraband introduction into the jail. But investigators found inappropriate spending by the Sheriff’s Office for other things.

Reports showed that $102,144 was spent on vehicles, riot ammunition, laptops, printers, headsets, employee travel and employee reimbursement for groceries and parking. A $25,000 payment to Watch Systems, LLC – a sex-offender community notification – was not only an improper expenditure from the commissary fund, the IG said, but also violated the budget the Sheriff’s Office was allowed to spend on the service. The County’s law department was working on recovering the payment to return it to the commissary fund.

After control was transferred from the Sheriff’s Office, County Executive Chris Ronayne said the $2 million commissary fund “will have its own budget, accounts, and sub-accounts and will be managed by the fiscal office and approved by county council.” For day-to-day operations, the county had already awarded a three-year management contract to Keefe in August 2022 – effectively granting owner TKC Holdings a monopoly over everything eaten by those incarcerated at the jail.

That has even jail guards worried. “A properly fed inmate population is key for the safety and security of the jail,” said Adam Chaloupka of the Ohio Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the guards’ union. “That’s why officers have been sounding alarms about the low-quality food.”

Keefe jacked up commissary prices at the end of March 2023 as much as 550%. A Hershey bar went from $1.05 to $1.80. Diced chicken breast rose $3.75, ranch dressing 27 cents, Ramen noodles 30 cents and tuna fish $1.41. A bag of Doritos that used to sell for 60 cents was marked up to $3.91. Predictably, commissary revenues plummeted, from an average of $167,000 per month to just $115,000 in April.

Chaloupka called it “troubling that inmates may be forced to purchase overpriced commissary items to supplement their diet, due to the poor and inadequate quality of food that Trinity is serving.”

The county had no comment. But in addition to losing inventory headaches, it also picks up revenue from the Keefe deal: a 40% commission on commissary sales, worth $46,000 in April. In 2022, the Sheriff’s office averaged a monthly net about $20,000 less from the canteen.

County council members were steamed to find out they weren’t advised of Keefe’s relationship to Trinity. But they promised to wait before acting until a new sheriff is sworn in. In May 2023, Ronayne appointed Cleveland cop Harold Pretel, who is awaiting council approval.

Former Sheriff Clifford Pinkney resigned in May 2019, a year after nine jail prisoners died in just six months and U.S. Marshals Service inspectors called the lockup “one of the worst in the country.” For lying and record-tampering in the ensuing investigation, former jail administrator Ken Mills got a nine-month prison term in 2021, when Summit County Court of Common Pleas Judge Patrica A. Cosgrove told him, “I don’t know how you can live with yourself.” [See: PLN, Feb. 2022, p.54.]

Additional source: Cleveland Plain Dealer