CLEVELAND — Citing the ongoing issues at the Cuyahoga County Corrections Center as a case study of sorts, Governor Mike DeWine has rolled out a series of reforms aimed at overhauling the state’s inspection system of local jails. Among the proposals are increases to inspection staff, unannounced inspections and mandatory reporting of critical incidents, including in-custody deaths, inmate violence and use-of-force by correctional officers.
The governor’s announcement Thursday followed the state’s re-inspection of the county jail on Monday. Although state officials noted improvements at CCCC compared to a disastrous November 2018 inspection and U.S. Marshals report, the county jail still was still non-compliant on a total of 66 standards, largely centering around healthcare for inmates, mental healthcare for inmates, discipline, food service and prep and cleanliness. The non-compliance also stemmed from the use of "red-zoning" which involves inmates been confined to their cells 23 hours a day because of jail staffing issues.
On the topic of staffing, the state’s review of the jail, which, coincidentally, occurred on new director Ronda Gibson’s first day on the job, found the jail’s roster of correctional officers had increased by 23. The county has authorized the hiring of more than 70 other correctional officers, which should reduce the amount of time inmates are red-zoned.
Annette Chambers-Smith, the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said the state inspection staff that visited the county jail Monday were, “pleased by the forward momentum.”
“A lot of different things are happening there that are moving in the right direction,” Chambers-Smith said. “The new jail administrator, Ronda Gibson, is an experienced person who has worked at two different compliant jails prior to coming to this jail.”
Chambers-Smith said a large portion of the issues of non-compliance in the 2018 inspection centered around the unwillingness and lack of cooperation inspectors encountered in their meetings with prior jail staff.
“People that were not participating with them in the previous audit don’t work there anymore,” Chambers-Smith said. “Forty percent of the standards that were lost in the Cuyahoga County Jail last inspection in 2018 were lost because they just did not turn in any paperwork or participate in the inspection. That’s not the case with the current group of people and that is very encouraging.”
If significant improvements do not continue, Gov. DeWine said legal action may be taken by the state to get the county jail into compliance. Additionally, CCCC will also be subjected to monthly inspections until it’s regularly-scheduled inspection happens in late 2019.
The more robust and thorough state inspection system will allow the state to ensure the 317 local jails and holding facilities are compliant, Chambers-Smith said.
When Gov. DeWine took office and Chambers-Smith was appointed as director of ODRC, the agency’s Bureau of Adult Detention was woefully understaffed, Chambers-Smith said. The agency had a total of six inspectors who would be tasked with annually inspecting more than 300 facilities in person. The staff also investigates citizen or inmate complaints, in addition to reviewing critical incidents like in-custody deaths.
“That’s really not enough staff to do everything that needs to be done,” Chambers-Smith said.
Gov. DeWine has proposed increasing the inspection staff to 15 plus a registered nurse who would be tasked with investigating complaints about healthcare inside a jail, which account for a bulk of complaints the agency receives each year.
The increased staff will also allow the inspections themselves to be more thorough. Currently, jail inspectors only review essential standards annually, while other minimum standards are reviewed every two years. With additional staff, inspectors will be able to review a facility’s compliance with both essential and minimum standards each year.
“Both of those changes are a gigantic step forward for this bureau and for the safety of jails in Ohio,” Chambers-Smith said in a phone interview.
Additionally, Gov. DeWine has asked the ODRC to work with lawmakers to amend state law, allowing the agency to conduct unannounced inspections of local jails. Unannounced reviews will give state inspectors a more accurate glimpse into a jail’s day-to-day conditions and operations, Chambers-Smith said.
“Although we like to think [jails] are always inspection-ready, the reality is that most places are not. Seeing a place that is not inspection ready is definitely truly what goes on there on a daily basis,” Chambers-Smith said. “Much like if you know you have company coming over, you clean your house. Maybe it’s not quite as perfect all the time when you aren’t having a party. It’s not any different than in your normal life.”
Gov. DeWine has also proposed standardizing grand jury inspections of county jails. The reform package also includes providing jail inspection reports to more local officials than just the jail administrator, police chief or county sheriff. Under the changes, those reports will be provided to municipal and county judges, boards of commissioners and city councils.