CLEVELAND, Ohio — Was former Cuyahoga County Regional Director of Corrections Ken Mills responsible for the conditions that led to six inmate deaths in six months, or was Mills the scapegoat for county bureaucrats?
On the first day of Mills' criminal trial, jurors heard two very different versions of events from prosecutors and defense attorneys.
The 56-year-old Mills is accused of failing to provide for inmates' basic needs, including medical attention, then lying to county council about his role in blocking the hiring of nurses inside the troubled county jail.
"What the state’s alleging is that Ken turned the place, that jail, into a place where it was unable to prevent predictable death," said prosecutor Matthew Meyer.
Prosecutors said Mills, who was named Regional Director of Corrections in 2015 despite having no experience running jails, ignored dire warnings about overcrowding and staffing levels, and instead pushed forward with plans to cut costs and regionalize the jail by housing inmates for the city of Cleveland and the suburbs.
"In 2018, the jail was bursting at the seams," said Meyer. "It comes down to money. The county thought it could charge those cities and suburbs for each inmate, each day and off their backs make money for the county's revenue. Ken was given that job — regionalize the jail."
But Mills' defense team pointed to a state law that puts the sheriff in charge of the jail.
"It doesn't say jail administrator has charge of the jail," said defense attorney Kevin Spellacy. "It says the sheriff has charge of the jail."
Spellacy told jurors Mills was set up by county bureaucrats.
"My client didn't control how many people are in the jail," said Spellacy. "He doesn't control mergers or acquisitions, he does what he's told. In this instance they want the third guy in line, the outsider to take the heat for the malfeasance of others."
But prosecutors told the jury changes in county government left the sheriff as a glorified middle manager who Mills didn't like and didn't respect.
"At one point, it got so bad that Ken changed the locks in the jail without even telling the sheriff," said Meyer. "So when the sheriff came down and tried to get in, guess what? Ken's house now."
Mills resigned just days before the November 2018 release of a US Marshal's review which called conditions inside the jail "inhumane."
But Spellacy said blaming his client for the problems is "ridiculous."
"I think once you hear the facts, you'll probably realize that we're here because the government attempted to charge somebody down on 9th Street, higher up, and they failed in that attempt," said Spellacy, referring to Cuyahoga County administration building, located on East 9th Street.
Several current and former county employees are expected to testify at the trial.