CLEVELAND — Did Cuyahoga County's rush to add inmates to an already crowded jail lead to the conditions that saw eight inmates die in six months back in 2018?
Those efforts to regionalize a jail that prosecutors said was bursting at the seams were a focus of the third day of testimony in the criminal trial of former Cuyahoga County Director of Regional Corrections Ken Mills.
Prosecutors painted those plans by the county to charge cities and suburbs to hold their inmates as a way to bring in additional revenue for Cuyahoga County.
Longtime jail director Ken Kochevar testified Friday that while on the job, he proposed the county slowly add inmates.
In the case of a proposed deal to house Cleveland's inmates, Kochevar said he recommended a three-to-five-year process to safely integrate prisoners.
"There were monumental things to work on that we immediately recognized that would hinder doing something quickly," said Kochevar.
He said that included trying to resolve staffing issues and figure out a place to house what became a swelling jail population.
"Everything begins to break down as the population goes up," said Kochevar. "Everything that happens when you crowd people together and keep crowding them in — it just breeds problems."
But Kochevar testified he was replaced in 2015 shortly after newly-elected Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish named Mills Director of Regional Corrections.
Prosecutors said Mills pushed ahead with the plans to consolidate jails despite warnings from workers that conditions inside the jail were becoming increasingly unsafe.
They were concerns that came to a head during what Cuyahoga County Councilman Michael Gallagher described as a contentious meeting in May 2018, weeks before the string of inmate deaths began.
"My concern is we have an overcrowded jail, we are expanding our footprint in Northeast Ohio, we seemingly aren’t ready to even handle our own jail downtown," said Gallagher when asked about the meeting.
But defense attorneys argue regionalization wasn't Mills's idea.
A former county chief of staff testified the idea of regionalizing jails began before Mills started working for the county.
"It started at the beginning of the Ed Fitzgerald administration," said Matt Carroll.
Mills is charged with tampering with records, falsification and dereliction of duty.
Testimony is expected to resume in the trial next Tuesday.