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Former inmates, staff share stories of life inside the Cuyahoga County jail

Too small, too dark and too little staff, those are some of the issues inmates and staff say are contributing to inhuman conditions in the Cuyahoga County jail. (Illustration by Advance Local)

Oct. 16, 2022

By Kaitlin Durbin, cleveland.com

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Life inside the Cuyahoga County jail is so bad, with reports of inedible food, unsanitary conditions and overuse of solitary confinement, that some inmates would rather go to prison – even for longer stretches of time.

That’s what multiple former inmates told cleveland.com after serving time at the county jail while awaiting trial on various charges, not all of which ended in convictions. Jails are supposed to detain potentially violent offenders pre-trial or those serving short sentences – less than one year – for minor crimes; prison houses only those convicted and sentenced to more than a year.

“Most guys can’t wait to go to prison and get out of the county, because it’s inhumane,” former jail inmate Chris A. recently told cleveland.com. He asked that only his first name and last initial be used to protect his business.

As county officials continue to debate how to improve the county jail and whether to build a new facility, cleveland.com asked those who have worked or were detained there to share their experiences and opinions on what they think the jail needs.

Their snapshot descriptions of life on the inside span more than a decade, yet their stories closely echo each other, indicating that very little has changed in that time. The U.S. Marshals issued a report in 2018 detailing what they also called inhumane conditions and other civil rights concerns in the jail, following a string of overdose and suicide deaths. But despite county officials’ promises to address the failures, inmates and staff have continued to report the same complaints: bad food, dirty living spaces, insect and rodent infestations, days spent locked in cells, and increasing unrest, leading to higher assaults.

In other words, the issues they identify stem from either a lack of basic maintenance or poor management – all problems that building a new jail wouldn’t solve, but also could and should be fixed today.

In a statement Friday, County Spokeswoman Mary Louise Madigan said the county has spent more than $12 million on improvements to the jail, worked tirelessly to hire more correction officers, and spent millions more to identify a site to build a modern, efficient facility. She declined to comment on the specific complaints raised in the series, calling them “unsubstantiated claims.”

“We’re meeting state requirements and will continue to maintain a safe environment for staff and inmates,” she said.

Here are the stories of former inmates and corrections officers, who say otherwise:

‘One big solitary confinement’

Although the Cuyahoga County jail, located in the Justice Center in downtown Cleveland, has had some updates, officials have been adamant that they need a new facility on a site outside of downtown to meet state standards for care and to improve working conditions for staff. Some areas looked up to date, while others looked every bit the 46 years old that they are. Holding cells get plenty of use.David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

Of the three jails and one private prison where Chris A. has served time for drinking and driving, Cuyahoga’s facility was the worst, he said. And that’s based on his recollections of conditions in 2014, when he spent roughly three months at the county jail before a judge granted his wish to serve the remainder of his felony drunken driving sentence in Summit County.

“The entire jail is one big solitary confinement,” he said, referring to the practice of isolating inmates in a cell for days to months at a time with little to no human contact.

Normally, solitary confinement is used as a form of punishment for misbehaving inmates, but in Cuyahoga, the similar practice of “red-zoning” has become a reality of understaffing. When there aren’t enough corrections officers to ensure safety and monitor common spaces, inmates are sometimes shut in their cells for 23-hours a day or more.

That happened a lot during Chris A.’s stay. He’d work 14 hours in the kitchen and return to his housing unit to find the rest of his block had been red-zoned that day. Immediately, he’d be shut in his cell, too, without the chance to shower or change his clothes, he said.

He recalled one time when staff put an entire housing unit on lockdown for multiple days, feeding them only bologna sandwiches and oatmeal, until someone confessed to stealing commissary items from one of the other inmates.

Maintaining proper hygiene was also a problem. Daily showers weren’t guaranteed. The same three cleaning rags were recycled across dozens of cells. When the toilet paper ran out for the week, no more was provided, and he said it was a luxury to have their uniforms cleaned once a week.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re in there for jaywalking, public intoxication, DUI, or murder. It doesn’t matter. You’re being treated like you are Anthony Sowell,” he said, referring to the serial killer and rapist more commonly known as the Cleveland Strangler. “That’s just their default. Treat everybody like they’re a monster.”

Chris A.’s vice was alcohol, but he said he had to wait until after he was released to access treatment or support services. At other facilities where he spent time, he was able to participate in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, church, Bible study, fatherhood classes, job training and other programs. In Cuyahoga? Nothing.

“You’re literally just sitting in your box for 23 to 24 hours a day,” he said. “People have no problem getting high in jail, but if you want to get or stay sober, you’re on your own.”

‘Nobody gives a s---’

Although the Cuyahoga County jail, located in the Justice Center in downtown Cleveland, has had some updates, officials have been adamant that they need a new facility on a site outside of downtown to meet state standards for care and to improve working conditions for staff. Some areas looked up to date, while others looked every bit the 46 years old that they are. Another of the recreation areas has a little bit of light coming in from the windows.David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

Former Newburgh Heights mayor Trevor Elkins spent 30 days at the Cuyahoga County jail this year on misdemeanor convictions for using campaign funds for personal reasons. He described the unhealthy conditions behind bars as a form of torture, rather than rehabilitation for those who will be returning to society.

Elkins previously condemned the food, the quality of which he believes contributes to unruly behavior, but he also criticized the unsanitary conditions.

He described cockroaches, dead bugs and gnats in the living spaces and black mold in the showers, which he said were only cleaned once during his month stay. And while he had daily access to a shower, the water was usually cold, and afterward he was forced to change back into the same unwashed uniform.

Inmates only receive one set of scrub-like “oranges” and a pair of rubber shoes, he said. Inmates with socks, underwear or an undershirt either wore them in or bought them from commissary. On wash day – usually once a week – everyone would sit in their underwear or cover with a blanket in the dorm-style pod until their new set of clothes arrived, Elkins said.

Only 20 people from his pod were given recreation time – about an hour on the indoor basketball court – he said. And the phone lines were so unreliable that he paid $6 to place a 15-minute collect call to stay in touch with his family. Those who couldn’t afford that were “flying solo,” he said.

“It is causing people trauma,” he said.

Still, he considered his pod to be “Candyland” compared with others throughout the jail, because he had access to windows with views of Lake Erie. That experience was in stark contrast to his first week in jail, when he was quarantining in a private cell with another man and only saw the sun through slits in a port-hole sized window. Elkins wonders what the state of his mental health might be had he spent his entire stay there.

“They just wanted to step outside and smell fresh air,” he said of the people he spoke to in jail.

While Elkins believes some of his grievances may be temporarily fixed by a new facility, they’re also likely to be repeated in the next jail, unless there’s a change in attitude.

“The problem I saw is nobody gives a s---,” Elkins said.

‘Completely disconnected’

The Cuyahoga County jail in downtown Cleveland was remodeled to handle an additional 94 inmates. (David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com)David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

Kim J. spent 450 days in the Cuyahoga County jail, starting in 2018, before a plea deal shrunk a dozen charges to one count of telecommunications fraud. If there’s one thing she learned, it’s that the justice system is failing.

“(Jail is) part of a system that’s called corrections, but in no way, shape or form is it correcting anything,” she said. “I would argue it’s making things worse.”

The jail wasn’t designed for long stays, she said, but people are suffering through them anyway. She was in her 50s and sleeping on a mat on the floor of her cell until they added “boats,” a sort of plastic cot on the floor. Initially she was given a cover for the mat, a sheet, and, in colder months, a blanket, but after one suicide, she said they stripped inmates of everything but the thin blanket.

One of the female guards belittled them by referring to them as “b----es,” she said. And she recalled a younger inmate waiting hours, naked from the waist down, in her cell after trying to wash menstrual blood out of her only uniform and repeatedly requesting dry clothes. Eventually, the girl walked out and exposed herself to the guards, trying to get their attention. She was sent to “the hole” for punishment, Kim J. recalled.

She struggled to get information about her case and follow when court dates changed. She had the means to call friends and family for updates, but most others were left in the dark. Sometimes, she said women would fight to use the four phones available during their window outside of the cell, trying to get in touch with their attorneys, family, loved ones.

“From day to day, you didn’t know if you were going to court or not,” Kim J. said. “You are completely disconnected.”

Mostly, she remembers how demoralizing and disorienting it was to have little access to fresh air or sunlight. Standing on the corner of the bunk in the cell, she could barely see out of her window. She’d watch the weather forecast and rely on the news to know what temperatures were like outside. It wasn’t until she moved to a dorm-style pod that she had access to windows overlooking the Cleveland Brown’s stadium and Lake Erie.

“Whatever they do, I pray there are windows,” she said of plans for a new jail. “Not being able to see the seasons change, it really does mess with you mentally.”

She’s not sure if that means the county needs to build a new jail. But of the existing jail, she said, “we can’t keep it the way it is.”

‘Caked-on filth’

Although the Cuyahoga County jail, located in the Justice Center in downtown Cleveland, has had some updates, officials have been adamant that they need a new facility on a site outside of downtown to meet state standards for care and to improve working conditions for staff. Some areas looked up to date, while others looked every bit the 46 years old that they are. The recreation areas are small and in need up repairs.David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

Josiah Quarles is one of the Cuyahoga County Jail Coalition members asking the county not to build a new jail, despite experiencing the “inhumane” and “disgusting” conditions, himself.

His first time in the county jail was in the early 2000s, when he says he tried to report being robbed at the bus stop and instead found himself detained for challenging officers when they dismissed him. He was released without charges, after spending the night in a cell with a man yelling into the morning for help with a leaking colostomy bag.

Things hadn’t improved nearly a decade later when drunken driving sent him back for over a week.

There was no water pressure, the food was bad, temperatures bounced between hot and cold extremes, and Quarles had to buy underwear from the commissary to cover himself, while his uniform was being washed, he recalled. He also criticized a lack of access to books to occupy his mind or any real recreation, other than one turn on a cramped basketball court, using a pair of sneakers shared by hundreds of other men.

Mostly, though, he remembers everything being dirty. The showers had “caked-on filth,” cells and common areas were grimy, and everything smelled. Once, while he was in the holding cell waiting to be transferred to the now-closed Euclid Jail Annex, which he said “felt more humane,” he remembered finding feces in the toilet with no way to flush.

He accused officials of using the conditions to their advantage to help secure more plea deals.

“If you plea out, you can go,” he said. “If you don’t, you’re going to stay in this hell hole, and nobody wants to be there.”

He’s returned to jail several times since then. Mostly for probation violations – “one time I was late to a probation meeting, and I had to spend a weekend (in the jail),” he said – and a second drunken driving conviction in 2018. Again, conditions hadn’t improved.

The jail’s biggest problem, he said, is neglect.

“I understand at this point things have deteriorated to the point where there are structural issues, but that wasn’t the case when I was there,” Quarles said. “They easily could have fed people with better food; that doesn’t have anything to do with the building. They could have provided opportunities for deep cleaning, so it didn’t get to that level; that doesn’t have anything to do with the building.”

‘You go crazy in there’

Although the Cuyahoga County jail, located in the Justice Center in downtown Cleveland, has had some updates, officials have been adamant that they need a new facility on a site outside of downtown to meet state standards for care and to improve working conditions for staff. Some areas looked up to date, while others looked every bit the 46 years old that they are.David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

Anthony Santaella estimates he’s spent roughly 6 months of his life cycling in and out of Ohio jails on various charges, and he spent at least 1 year in prison, but he says his time in the Cuyahoga County jail was the worst.

Though he spent some time in the Cleveland City Jail, which is attached to the Justice Center complex but ran separately until 2018, his first time in county facilities was in 2017. He’d been accused of trafficking cocaine and spent a little over two months in jail before pleading guilty to the charges and transferring to the Lorain Correctional Institution to serve his sentence.

“The thing is, it’s so horrible there that they said I was the first person they’ve ever seen that was so happy to go to prison,” Santaella said. “It’s called copping out, like, you don’t have money for bond so whatever deal they give you, you’re going to take, because you just want to get out of there.”

He spent less than 3 months at the jail but said he’d seen enough.

He worked in the kitchen, where he saw cockroaches and rats, and served questionable “sweat meat” on broken food trays that smelled of mold and bacteria and threatened to make eaters sick.

In his dorm-style pod, inmates would fight over cleaning supplies to keep their area disinfected and prevent staph infections. And he also remembered covering himself with a blanket while his only uniform was being washed -- “We called it a toga party,” he said.

When another inmate began having a seizure, Santaella said everyone was shouting for help that never came, until after the man stopped moving. By then, they were shouting, “He’s dead!” He’s not sure if the inmate died, but he recalls officers dragging his motionless body from the room, and the man never returned the duration of Santaella’s stay.

On other occasions, when he was in a cell, rather than in the open dorm, he would be locked up for two- day stretches. Guards would occasionally peek in their cell windows, he said, but mostly they felt forgotten.

“I heard people screaming for hours and hours and hours,” Santaella said. “You go crazy in there.”

Santaella’s last arrest was in 2019. He was accused of burglary, theft and criminal damaging and spent two days in jail, before a friend paid his bond. Then the pandemic hit, and his trial was pushed back until April of this year. A jury found him not guilty on all counts.

Maybe he would have been released anyway, when some of the restrictions were relaxed, but he shudders to think what would have happened had he been incarcerated for two years before his trial.

“It’s different for people who can afford to pay a bond,” Santaella said. “I pray they tear that place down and build a new one with better conditions.”

Corrections Officers: ‘retention is how you bring back the jail’

A group of 20 Cuyahoga County corrections officers spoke at the Oct. 11, 2022 council meeting, asking for help to improve retention and other conditions in the jail. (Kaitlin Durbin, cleveland.com)

A group of 20 corrections officers and supervisors have repeatedly asked county council for help with conditions inside the county jail, saying it’s bad for employees, too.

Over 200 officers have quit or been let go this year alone, they said, putting more strain on staffing, further limiting inmate programming, and forcing excessive overtime. Assaults on officers are also increasing amid rising unrest.

Brian Klak and William Speight, both corporals in the jail, said the county needs to focus on retention, first, to restore order and improve officer safety.

“Officer retention is how you will be able to bring back the jail,” Speight told council this week. “Giving those incarcerated individuals some programs is how you can bring back the jail.”

Cleveland.com left messages with the officers and their UAW Region 2B representative, seeking clarification about what actions they’re seeking to improve retention.

Adam Chaloupka, an attorney with the Ohio Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which represents the majority of jail officers, said the union will again seek higher wages during upcoming negotiations (starting pay increased to $24/hour last year) and other changes aimed at improving morale.

Officers want more support from the wardens and associate wardens, who he accused of hiding in their offices, and a revised disciplinary process to prevent what he believes are unnecessary punishments and lengthy investigations for policy violations. He gave examples of officers being suspended or written up for wearing a knit hat, coming back from lunch “too early,” not making their rounds every 15 minutes while providing other services, mislabeling things in the logbook, or leaving their posts in an emergency to chase down supervisors who don’t respond to their radio calls.

“We don’t condone that, but they’re new officers,” Chaloupka said. “It’s becoming apparent they’re not being trained, and when something goes wrong, instead of being told what they should do, they’re getting suspended.”

They’re also so short-staffed that he said officers aren’t always able to take meal breaks and are being fed jail food with the inmates.

Speight called building a new jail “a complete waste of taxpayer funds,” and argued that the county’s decision to build a new Juvenile Justice Center did little to improve poor conditions there, either. The same problems carried over to the new facility.

“We moved from 22nd to 93rd, it got worse,” he said, referring to the juvenile center’s change in address from East 22nd St. to 9300 Quincy Ave.”(If) you’re going to build a new jail, you’re going to face a lot more litigation, just with a prettier building.”

Chaloupka believes the county can do both. A new jail could improve conditions and efficiencies, making life easier for officers, but that’s years away from becoming a reality. The county still needs to focus on improving other staffing issues now, he said.

“Jail management can work on morale, they can work on retention, while somebody else works on building a new jail,” Chaloupka said.