by Sheena Holland
Neighborhood Media Intern Reporter
Over the past year, substandard conditions at the Cuyahoga County Jail may have played a significant role in the deaths of nine inmates in custody, a situation which has merited the scrutiny of both local and state officials alike. Ohio State Senator Nickie J. Antonio (D, OH-Dist. 23) from Lakewood and Ohio State Representative Jeffrey A. Crossman (D, Cuy.-Dist. 15) from Parma are both deeply troubled by the poor conditions found at the jail and are calling for reform in order to properly protect the wellbeing of those in custody.
In phone interviews with Neighborhood Media, both Antonio and Crossman expressed they felt conditions not only at local jails, such as the Cuyahoga County facility, but also at the statewide level need improvements in a time-sensitive fashion.
“Using our County Jail as sort of a precursor—a canary in a coal mine, if you will—in digging into this issue and understanding the full scope of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction’s (DRC’s) authority and responsibility, it was my idea, working together with Senator Antonio, to come up with a scheme that would improve oversight from the State-level and really provide some teeth to the process—to help add a layer of urgency that doesn’t seem to exist in the current framework,” Crossman said.
Crossman and Antonio emphasized a central theme of their bi-cameral proposed legislation, soon to be introduced: when problems are found in any of Ohio’s jails, solutions must be mandated and implemented with great speed.
“The initial things that we would like to see change come through the inspection process, which is something that the state of Ohio and DRC is responsible for. So, we want a compliance period—a period of time where if a jail is inspected and they’re found to be noncompliant, that they have to address their deficiencies within a specific time period,” Antonio said.
“That was the overriding goal,” Crossman said, “to create a framework that would mandate compliance by certain periods of time, and a cascading set of consequences for failing to do so.”
Antonio and Crossman have proposed several ideas to improve Ohio’s jail inspection process. The process with which Ohio inspects its jails came into the spotlight after recent revelations about gross understaffing, according to the proposal’s co-authors.
Governor Mike DeWine is making changes that reveal a recognition of the need to examine the role under-inspection played in the gradual decline of conditions in jails across Ohio, including the Cuyahoga County Jail.
The office of Annette Chambers-Smith, Director of the DRC, issued the following statement to Neighborhood Media: “Director Chambers-Smith has met with the offices of Senator Antonio and Representative Crossman and discussed the concerns regarding jail operations and oversight. We are aware of the concepts that are included in the proposed legislation and look forward to working with the Senator and Representative once the legislation is introduced. Internally, steps have been taken to enhance the jail oversight functions of the Bureau of Adult Detention and implement Governor DeWine’s reforms, such as increased staffing.”
Antonio and Crossman are eager to work with DeWine to ensure uncompliant jails are required to address their deficiencies within a specific time period.
“Because currently there’s no corrective time period: you’re found to [need] corrections, but I don’t know, I guess you have the rest of your life to make those changes. We would like to see a narrower time period,” Antonio said.
Antonio is researching the most effective time mechanism to speed jail compliance once issues are discovered. Both Antonio and Crossman foresee bi-partisan interest in their jail reform proposal when it’s ready to be introduced. If passed, Ohio jails that are found not to comply with requested improvements within that allotted time frame could face legal actions from the DRC, if deemed necessary.
Antonio was alarmed to find that staffing itself for inspections had been “decimated” under previous administrations. She said that the staff had been cut to such a great degree that some of the jail inspections were being conducted by interns.
Crossman echoed the Senator’s concerns about the lack of manpower the DRC has been working with up until now.
“The DRC is the agency responsible for overseeing the over 300-some jails in the State of Ohio, and they were doing this with a total staff of six people,” Crossman said. “That has not been widely reported, nor has anybody examined why that’s the case…I think it only had two inspectors for the entire state. Now tell me, what is the feasibility of truly inspecting at a high level—really scrutinizing a facility—with only two people traveling across the State of Ohio? It’s not feasible.”
In addition to adding inspection staff, Antonio is in support of unannounced jail inspections, which would allow for a more authentic look at the daily conditions of the jail—as opposed to when jails are given notice and time for preparation.
She said, “The new administration, Governor DeWine, has proposed to add staff to be able to even conduct the inspections. Step one. The inspections were always conducted and announced; we know that the governor is talking about [unannounced inspections], and we fully support unannounced inspections—so that you find what day-to-day life looks like when people don’t know you’re coming.”
Antonio believes the problems in the Cuyahoga County Jail reached their current boiling point after a combination of many different factors, one of which is the issue of overcrowding.
In a February 11, 2019, Annual Jail Inspection report, an inspector from the Ohio Bureau of Adult Detention found 2,202 inmates incarcerated in Cuyahoga County Jail—437 more inmates than the “Total actual general housing capacity for the Cuyahoga County Correctional Center,” which limits inmates to a ceiling of 1,765.
Antonio said that members of the Ohio legislature, herself included, are accepting some responsibility in this situation because of their impact on funding to the jail systems over the years, and she feels the legislature has not been calling for extra resources as much as it should. She wants to change that and become much more involved.
“Everything that Representative Crossman and I have brought up right now is in effort to be collaborators with all parties to work towards improvements. We’re not doing any finger-pointing or anything. What we’re trying to do is say, ‘here are some suggestions we have,’” said Antonio. “We’re open to having a dialogue if there are other things that make sense, and we want to be an active participant in helping to turn these things around.”
One of the final suggestions that Antonio and Crossman have proposed is the creation of a whistleblower hotline—a number that anyone could call anonymously to report problems within an Ohio jail. Antonio said they would like to encourage people to come forward and speak out if they see an issue and know that they are protected in doing so.
“At the end of the day, the most important thing to us is that the jails are a place where both the staff, and those that are being detained, can feel safe. Because right now that is not the case for all of our jails.”Neighborhood Media works with small media publishers covering the neighborhoods and communities of Cleveland, Ohio, and supports the Neighborhood & Community Media Association of Greater Cleveland. This report was made available to a collaborative network of small media outlets.