Ohio finds numerous problems at troubled county jail

An Ohio county jail where prisoners are locked down for days because of staff shortages, dietary restrictions are ignored and toilets and showers go unrepaired has received mostly failing grades during its latest state inspection, according to a report released this week.

The Cuyahoga County Corrections Center in downtown Cleveland has been under increasing scrutiny since the deaths of seven prisoners over a four-month period last year and the release of a scathing report by the U.S. Marshals Service in late November that called conditions at the jail "inhumane" and unsafe for prisoners and staff.

The inspection by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction found nearly two-thirds of 135 state standards out of compliance. Only six standards were judged non-compliant by the same state inspector in 2017.

The 2018 state inspection report was released after the U.S. Marshals Service concluded that "life and safety concerns as well as inhumane conditions of confinement" at the jail violate prisoners' constitutional rights. Both inspections highlight a growing number of issues troubling state and county jails across the United States.

The FBI is conducting a civil rights investigation of prisoner treatment at the jail. The agency and the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation are also investigating allegations of public corruption regarding current and former Cuyahoga County officials, including issues surrounding the jail.

The Marshals Service has removed federal detainees from the downtown jail and now places them at a smaller county facility in the Cleveland suburb of Euclid.

Brandy Carney, Cuyahoga County chief of public safety and justice, noted in a statement that previous state inspections "held us in compliance."

"Since the Marshal's report, we have been aggressively working on fixing each issue raised and have made significant progress," Carney said.

JoEllen Smith, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, which inspects local jails, said Ohio's minimum standards are "significantly different" from those of the Marshals Service. She said 29 of the 84 non-compliant standards found during the latest inspection involved failures to provide documentation.

Smith said state officials reviewed the marshals' report "in an effort to identify potential areas of overlap that could impact the findings of the state inspection."

Brian Klak, a longtime Cuyahoga County corrections officer and union official with the Ohio Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, said overcrowding has been a problem at the downtown jail, which consists of two towers, for years. He said it became more acute when the county took over the city of Cleveland's jail operations early last year.

Persistent lockdowns called "red zoning," which result in prisoners being forced to remain in their cells for periods exceeding 24 hours, began in 2015 when the county took over two suburban jails, reducing the number of correction officers at the downtown facility, Klak told The Associated Press. During red zoning, one corrections officer might be required to keep watch on as many as four housing units while the prescribed staffing plan is one officer for each unit, Klak said.

"This didn't evolve in a couple of months or a couple of years," he said.

During the latest state inspection on Nov. 6, there were 2,202 inmates in a facility meant to hold 1,765.

Both state and federal inspectors said prolonged lockdowns deprive prisoners of access to showers, recreation, educational and substance abuse programs, family visits and conferences with their attorneys.

The state inspection report found juveniles housed with adults; temperatures between 52 and 60 degrees in housing units, menus developed without regard for special dietary or religious needs, showers infested with insects and unsanitary conditions in food service areas.

David Fathi, director of the ACLU's national prison project, said he wasn't aware of problems at the Cuyahoga County jail. He said the ACLU is involved in litigation over conditions at a number of large urban jails, including Maricopa County in Arizona, Broward County in Florida and Baltimore's city jail.

The Justice Department this month asked its inspector general to investigate conditions at a federal lockup in New York City where prisoners were forced to live without heat or electricity during frigid weather over a weeklong period earlier this year.

Civil rights lawsuits filed by jail prisoners claiming mistreatment prompted Ohio's Montgomery County, which includes Dayton, to hire consultants who detailed jail overcrowding and staffing problems there last summer.

The ACLU's Fathi said there are thousands of local jails in the U.S. that largely operate with no oversight or outside supervision.

"Some are well run and protect detainees' health safety and human dignity," he said. "And there other jails with truly Third World levels of squalor and misery."