Overcrowded Ohio Jails at Breaking Point, Inmates Say

CLEVELAND (CN) – A class of inmates sued Ohio jail officials Thursday claiming chronic overcrowding and understaffing, lack of access to safe drinking water and food, and other inhumane conditions have led to a spike in deaths and assaults.  

Seven inmates filed a class action against Cuyahoga County and county officials in Cleveland federal court. They say detainees are also routinely denied access to proper medical care and religious services in violation of their civil rights.

The county’s jails have a stated 1,765-person capacity but they currently hold more 2,400, the inmates say. The lawsuit states that between June and October, at least seven inmates died, three of whom committed suicide. Fifty-five people attempted suicide in the past year, according to the complaint.  

“Defendants have long been on notice of the horrific conditions and constitutional deprivations occurring daily at CCCC, yet have failed to timely or effectively remedy the deplorable state of affairs,” the 61-page lawsuit states, abbreviating the Cuyahoga County Corrections Center.

The plaintiffs’ attorney Sarah Gelsomino said Thursday that she had heard from some inmates that conditions were so bad that they were accepting plea deals to get out of the jail and into state penitentiary.

“It’s creating a sense of dread among inmates that’s truly dangrous,” Gelsomino said in a phone interview.

The lawsuit targets four facilities. Two of the jails are on the same site at Cuyahoga County Corrections Center. Two others are in Euclid and Bedford. 

The goal of the lawsuit is to completely reform the jails, increase staffing and reduce in-custody deaths, the attorney said.

“Seven deaths in one year in a facility is far beyond any average or acceptable number,” Gelsomino said.

County officials did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment.

The in-custody deaths occurred during the tenure of Regional Corrections Director Kenneth Mills, who according to the inmates had “absolutely no experience in the field of corrections administration.”

He was hired four years ago by Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish, the lawsuit states. 

Lead plaintiff Tonya Clay says she had to sleep on a mat in her cell due to overcrowding and that showers in the jail are covered in mold.  She also claims she has received inadequate medical treatment for her conditions, which include liver damage and glaucoma. She has also been denied access to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, according to the lawsuit. 

A U.S. Marshals Service report issued in November and cited in the complaint condemned conditions in the jail. 

A dozen inmates were reportedly packed into one cell, two pregnant inmates were forced to sleep on the floor, and mice and other vermin were seen during food service. 

Inmates have also been confined for up to 27 hours at a time without showers, recreational time or toiletries, the complaint adds. 

The proposed class seeks the appointment of an independent monitor and an injunction that brings an end to the alleged constitutional violations in the county jails.

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