Ohio judge accuses jail official of 'indifference' over 6 inmate deaths in 3 months
The FBI and U.S. Marshals are conducting investigations into conditions at the Cuyahoga County Jail
By Courtney Astolfi
Advance Ohio Media
CLEVELAND, Ohio — The administrative judge for Cuyahoga County’s Common Pleas Court has accused the County Executive Armond Budish’s administration of being indifferent to dangerous conditions in the county jail where six inmates died over three months.
Judge John J. Russo states in a letter to Budish written on behalf of the court’s 34 judges, that he can no longer rely on the word of jail administrators, who have promised that changes are being made to improve conditions at the jail, and demands that the administration ensure inmates’ safety.
“We hope the county is not putting a price on the safety of its citizens,” the letter says. Russo provided a copy of the letter to cleveland.com on Thursday.
In his letter, Russo says inmates are denied access to medical and mental health care providers for up to a month, and staff shortages mean that inmates in need of psychiatric and medical care are not identified when they are booked into the jail. Inmates also don’t receive medication they need quickly enough, and that leads to inmates suffering from higher rates of psychotic episodes, the letter says.
A statement provided to cleveland.com by Budish’s chief of staff, Earl Leiken, said the administration will do whatever it can to implement changes recommended by an independent review of the jail, but he did not address specific concerns raised by Russo about conditions inside the jail.
Russo’s letter comes as Budish faces other criticism about jail conditions and the inmate deaths, three of which were ruled as suicides.
Built to hold about 1760 people, the jail has been routinely over capacity by hundreds of inmates. Inmates sleep on mats on the floor of crowded pods. Large numbers of inmates are locked in their cells for all but a few hours of the day at times due to staff shortages. And a state inspection found guards failed to do state-required medical screenings within 14 days.
The FBI is investigating possible civil rights issues at the jail, sources have told cleveland.com. Budish asked the U.S. Marshals to conduct a review of jail policies and procedures after the sixth inmate died Oct. 2.
Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Michael Nelson, former president of the Cleveland NAACP, has said that he would no longer send non-violent offenders from his court to the jail over concern for their health and safety.
In his letter, Russo also expresses concerns about the lack of sheriff’s deputies or other security personnel available to stand guard and escort inmates to courtrooms.
Russo says judges have repeatedly tried to bring their concerns to Budish, but to no avail.
“I do not believe that you are waiting for a tragic, violent incident, causing death or injury in the Justice Center to take action, the letter states. “However, every day that we delay is a cause for concern.”
A county spokeswoman said Budish was not immediately able to comment on Thursday, so Leiken provided the following statement:
County Executive Armond Budish has asked U.S. Marshall Peter Elliott to do a comprehensive and thorough study of conditions in the jail. Elliott has put together a team of highly experienced assessors and we expect a report out on the conditions in the coming days. The report will also include a set of recommendations which we will be reviewing. We will do everything we can to implement the recommended changes.
Regarding the staffing levels in the court house, we have a significant level of staffing – 30 deputies for 34 judges in addition to protective service officers. During our discussions with Judge Russo, we agreed to work on coordination of staffing according to judge’s needs. Judges are not on the bench or in court 7 days a week, 8 hours a day and staffing level needs fluctuate from day to day. It is imperative that there is a coordinated way to adjust staffing levels appropriately. Meanwhile, any time there is a unique request that comes through, the Sheriff always responds to these. In fact, Chief of Public Safety, Brandy Carney, Sheriff Cliff Pinkney and Chief George Taylor have been meeting with Judge Russo and others to discuss and resolve these matters.
We suggest an independent study be made of security staffing in our court house, factoring in the time that each judge is in session in a court room and in need of deputies for transporting and securing prisoners and for other tasks. We certainly want to insure the appropriate level of security in our court house.
The County has a deep concern and commitment to both the safety of our inmates and for the security levels in our courthouse.