CLEVELAND — Meryl Johnson, who has 40 years as a Cleveland teacher, testified before Cleveland City Council about poor conditions at the Cuyahoga Juvenile Detention Center, after speaking with former teen residents and corrections officers at the facility.
Johnson, who is also with the Justice For Our Youth Task Force, testified at the June 6 council meeting about staffing and safety concerns at the facility.
“They treat you like an animal in here, those disturbing words were said to me during a phone call with a former resident of the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center," Johnson said. "When we’re locked in our room, we have to push a bell to go to the bathroom, a lot of times the guards don’t answer, we knock and bang on the window and door and they still don’t come.”
“I talked to a detention officer about the dangerous conditions, he said we are severely under staffed, we don’t have the staffing to keep the kids safe. Detention officers are working 70-hour weeks, the moral is so low and the burnout is so serious that they are calling off and the kids get stuck in their rooms."
Johnson's testimony caused Michael Polensek and six other council members to arrange a July 5 tour of the facility. Polensek praised detention center staff for doing good work despite on-going staffing issues and a growing number of teens being held at the facility. But Polensek said more county fundingis deseprately needed.
“We’re seeing young people throughout the county being arrested for violent crimes," Polensek said. “Felonious assaults, car jackings, robberies, we’ve got a problem here.”
“Something as bad as juvenile justice has not bee a priority. And yet they’re trying their best over there with the staff that they have. They can hold 180, today they have 138, but the funding is not even there, they don’t have the correctional officers to hold that many kids. But you got to have the proper staff and support personnel to go out into the field. You’ve got to figure out what these kids are doing. Are they home, are they going to school, are they being properly cared for?”
Bridget Gibbons, Deputy Court Administrator with the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court told News 5 staffing improvements are being made, but acknowledged a staff shortage continues.
"We have made a significant effort to increase our staffing here in the detention center and increase their pay," Gibbons said. "We're moving in the right direction, we have had an increase in population in our detention center, so we’re still in need we’re going to continue to hire."
“We’ve been averaging between 138 to 145 residents in our detention center, so we’re continuously in a need to increase staffing. Programs like Project Calm are helping, it's a diversion program designed to keep youth away from secure detention. If my child were in here, I would definitely want to make sure my child is safe. Unfortunately the kids that we’re serving come in with a significant trauma.”
The Cuyahoga County Court Juvenile Division is accepting applications for detention center workers and volunteers through its webpage.
Meanwhile, Cleveland council members like Ward 9 Councilman Kevin Conwell believe the next Cuyahoa County Executive elected this November must make a greater commitment toward better funding the juvenile detention center.
“Both of the candidates need to talk about the juvenile detention center," Conwell said. "They need to be here at the juvenile detention center so they can see what’s gong on. Their budget is for 103 and their doing more children than what their budget dictates they should do.”