Militant Journalism

Cleveland jail inmates face continued abuse, activists protest

On New Year’s Eve, activists from a broad coalition met outside the Justice Center Complex in downtown Cleveland, the seat of the current county jail, for a noise demonstration. The protest organized by Forest City Anarchists was attended by members of the Cuyahoga County Jail Coalition, the Party for Socialism and Liberation Northeast Ohio, and other organizations in a show of support for inmates inside the jail. Attendees played instruments and banged on pots, pans and extra buckets provided by the organizers. The noise and music is a yearly tradition to remind inmates that even though they are locked up, they are not forgotten. The gesture of solidarity was returned in kind by waves of support from inside the jail.

This year’s event comes on the heels of a string of ongoing controversies surrounding the conditions inside the jail and a proposed $550 million plan to replace it with a completely new building. After the death of six inmates was reported, a U.S. Marshals report released in 2018 reviewed the conditions inside the jail, calling it, “one of the worst in the country.” Citing overcrowding, abusive treatment of prisoners, inadequate nutrition and a complete lack of improvements from the previous audit in 2015, the report was a sobering look into the treatment of the inmates residing in the jail. 

One of the most controversial findings was the policy of so-called “Red Zones,” where officials managed overcrowding by forcing inmates to remain in their cells for 27 hours or longer. Inmates were not able to shower or were forced to shower in front of staff, and denied basic supplies like toothbrushes, toothpaste and toilet paper.

Continued problems during the pandemic

Throughout the previous year, little has been done to resolve these issues, and what little progress had been made has been unraveled by the ongoing pandemic. The current jail has a maximum capacity of 1,765 inmates. At the time the U.S. Marshals report was released, the jail population was at approximately 2,420. While the county has been able to lower the number of inmates, they have struggled to keep the number below 1,600, with 1,630 reported inmates in August 2021. 

Additionally, citing issues of isolating inmates due to COVID-19, officials have continued to implement Red Zoning, with the number of hours inmates being held in their cells ballooning from 61 hours in January 2021 to 211 in October. The first reported death of an inmate and jail officer due to COVID in December resulted in the governor sending 25 Ohio military reserve members to the jail to “assist” with managing the situation.

County plans to build a new jail

Despite existing solutions to reduce the jail population, a 12-member executive committee led by County Executive Armond Budish has been devoting time and energy on a $550 million project to build a new county jail, which would include a 0.25% sales tax increase to fund the project. This proposal is being pushed through despite the gross mismanagement of a diversion center established just this past year, which if better used, could significantly reduce the jail population at a fraction of the cost.

Officially opened May 2021, the stated objective of the diversion center is to offer mental health and addiction services for non-violent offenders and those seeking treatment rather than facing jail time. However, these efforts have been hampered by red tape and underutilization. It is reported that only half of the police departments in the county have referred any individuals to the center since its inception. Until October 2021, police could only bring in an individual suspected of committing a crime and not any individual seeking help, and only starting in November were self referrals accepted. As of now, Cleveland Police officers cannot refer anyone without prior approval from the law department.

While the current site of the diversion center holds 50 beds, the initial plan was to relocate to another location with at least 150. Officials running the diversion center have reported that they have filled no more than 10 beds at a time, and county officials have stated this as proof a new location is not needed, rather than looking at the roadblocks the center has faced in its mission up to this point.

As stated by Lu Zucker, co-lead organizer of the Cuyahoga County Jail Coalition, an activist group formed in response to the 2018 U.S. Marshals report: “The county government wants to build another jail for at least $550 million, claiming that will solve the problems of the current jail. That is false. A new jail will not be safe for anyone inside it, nor will it keep the people outside the jail safe. Looking at a government’s budget is the easiest way to determine its priorities. This new jail plan tells us the county is prioritizing locking up more people, at the expense of what would bring stability and prosperity to our communities: things like good-paying jobs with benefits so residents can provide for themselves and their families, affordable housing, affordable quality healthcare including mental healthcare, affordable childcare, free community violence intervention teams and mediation services, and resources to support healing and safety for people who’ve been harmed, for example.”

As activists come together in solidarity with inmates facing impossible hardships inside the county jail, the struggle against inmate abuse and mismanagement of resources by the county must continue into the coming year.

Feature photo: Activists bang on buckets at a New Year’s Eve noise demonstration outside the county jail in Cleveland. Liberation photo

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