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Inmate deaths point to need for leadership -- and new county jail: Mark Naymik

October 5, 2018

Inmate deaths point to need for leadership -- and new county jail: Mark Naymik

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- People shouldn’t die while they are in Cuyahoga County’s jail.

After the death of six inmates within four months, our county elected officials seem to finally agree.

On Thursday, following the death of the sixth inmate, the county released a statement saying that County Executive Armond Budish will ask the County Council for money to hire an outside expert to review the county jail system. It certainly warrants a review – and more.

The FBI also is looking into possible civil rights violations at the jail, sources told cleveland.com this week. It’s unclear whether the inquiry, which started as early as June, was sparked by the deaths.

What is crystal clear is that the jail has been crowded and understaffed for years and represents a real crisis for Budish and all of the parties involved in our criminal justice system.

It’s time our elected officials muster the will power to build a new jail, expand treatment options for inmates with mental health and drug problems and embrace court reforms that would reduce the number of people sent to jail.

Guards, former prisoners and other former and present jail employees have told my colleagues that conditions at the jail remain dangerous. Set aside their personal gripes and agendas and the jail population still greatly exceeds the capacity of the facility and we have six dead inmates.

A former jail nursing supervisor, Marcus Harris, who said in a May letter to County Council that he quit his job in January amid inmate safety and ethics concerns, told cleveland.com in May that jail conditions were troubling.

“Every day that I went to work I had to wonder if someone was going to be dead or assaulted,” Harris said. 

Harris’ comment might have seemed hyperbolic at the time, but it seems prophetic now.

Of the six deaths this year, two were suicides and two are believed to be related to drug use while in the jail. Two remain under investigation.

Such problems are not unique to our jail. Jails around the country are crowded and struggling to deal with the drug use within their walls. But experts believe that providing more regular medical attention to inmates could help spot drug use in the jail and that increased monitoring of inmates could help prevent suicides. New jail designs will surely make monitoring easier.

The latest inmate death triggered outrage from Cleveland Municipal Judge Michael Nelson, who said Wednesday that he would no longer send non-violent offenders from his court to the jail  out of concern for their health and safety.

Now it’s time for Budish, County Council and judges to show a similar level of alarm.

I get that no one likes to hear that government needs to spend more money on jails or criminals. But it’s the most basic function of government, one far more important than helping build sports arenas.

Our county jail houses violent people who elicit little sympathy, but it also houses people who are accused of drunken driving and nonviolent crimes. They are all entitled to the same care.

The jail’s challenges are exasperated by inmates with mental and drug-abuse problems. But at the moment, the county isn’t prepared to send them elsewhere. This is just another reason Budish and the County Council need to push building a new jail to the top of their priority list.

In the meantime, our judges should continue to push for court reforms that will reduce the number of inmates in jail. We don’t need more task forces from them, we need action. And Budish and council must be willing to cover the costs of adopting the reforms. They will need to pay for expanded and centralized pretrial services; the collection of data needed to gauge what reforms are working; more rapid, in-person bail hearings; an expanded method of assessing which suspects to free while awaiting trial; and a centralized bail process. 

And we need all of this sooner rather than later. Ideally, we need all of this before another inmate dies.