New Jail, Same Problems: Why Cleveland is Resisting Plans for a ‘Modern’ Detention Center
Cuyahoga County is the latest community to debate a proposal to build a new jail in response to inhumane conditions at the current facility. Advocates say there's no such thing as a humane jail.
Katie Rose Quandt Mar 28, 2023
Support for this article was provided by the Alicia Patterson Foundation.
When Brenden Kiekisz was booked into the Cuyahoga County Jail in Cleveland on Christmas Day 2018, a correctional officer asked him a series of questions, including whether he had ever tried to kill himself. Yes, Kiekisz answered—just two days earlier, though he said he didn’t currently have thoughts of suicide or self-harm. Kiekisz also informed the booking officer that he had depression and bipolar disorder, and was taking several prescription medications. Yet he was assigned to the jail’s general population and was not flagged for mental health monitoring.
Earlier that day, Kiekisz had been arrested on what was supposed to be an unarrestable charge: asking people on the street for money to buy food. He was kept in custody on a year-old warrant for missing a probation meeting, which he’d missed because he was in a mental health treatment facility at the time.
Two days into his jail stay, Kiekisz appeared in court, where he told a judge he hadn’t been receiving his medications. “This is the place that causes the depression,” he said. “I’m losing it in here.” The judge approved his request to be released into mental health treatment. But that night, as he waited alone in his cell to be transferred, Kiekisz attempted suicide and died in a hospital several days later.
“He needed counselors, treatments,” his father, Johnny Kiekisz, told The Appeal. “They got him when he felt depressed, and they didn’t watch over him.”
Kiekisz was one of eight people who died in custody of the Cuyahoga County Jail over a six-month period in 2018, most from suicide or overdose. That year, a scathing investigation by the U.S. Federal Marshals Service revealed that the jail was nearly 700 people over its capacity of 1,765, with 2,420 detainees locked up in “inhumane” conditions. Since 2018, the county has paid over $7 million to settle 13 lawsuits over misconduct in the jail, including assaults by staff. More than a dozen suits remain pending.
The solution to the chronic overcrowding and dangerous conditions, some Cuyahoga County officials say, should involve replacing the aging jail with a brand new facility in a different location. (The two current jail buildings, which are part of a larger Justice Center in downtown Cleveland, opened in 1976 and 1994.) Although plans and estimated costs have shifted repeatedly, one recent projection totaled nearly $2 billion in construction costs and interest payments to fund a new jail capable of holding 1,600 to 2,400 beds.
Until late last year, the plan seemed almost inevitable. The Cuyahoga County Council, the county executive, and members of an advisory steering committee of city, county, and justice system officials all favored green-lighting construction. But in recent months, the push has stalled, thanks in large part to loud, continuous opposition from community advocates.
The debate in Cuyahoga represents a fundamental disagreement, now playing out similarly in communities across the country: Is a new jail the solution to preventing deaths behind bars?
While Cuyahoga’s problems are extreme, the jail conditions seen there are far from unusual. Around the country, an average of at least three people die in jails each day, according to the latest federal data, though that is almost certainly an undercount. Jail detainees tend to be particularly vulnerable; many struggle with substance use, poor health, and poverty. A survey of detainees from 2011 to 2012, the most recent data available, found that two-thirds had a diagnosed mental disorder or had experienced “serious psychological distress” in the 30 days prior. In more recent years, 67 percent of the jail population nationwide is being held pretrial, often because they cannot afford bail. The Cuyahoga County Jail, like many others, is fed by a court system that routinely churns people with mental illness and addiction in and out of jail, according to a Marshall Project analysis published in October.
For decades, county officials and sheriffs have pitched the idea of building “humane,” “state-of-the-art” jails—often with much larger capacities—as a way to curb inhumane conditions and address overcrowding. In a survey of 77 counties that had considered or completed jail expansions as of 2019, officials in around half of those jurisdictions cited overcrowded or aging facilities as a justification. Many reported that they believed the additional space would allow for safer working and living environments, humane programming, and better health care.
“A new jail will be more safe, efficient, and effective both for the prisoners and the corrections personnel,” argued Cuyahoga’s then-County Executive Armond Budish in a press release last year. In 2020, County Councilmember Mike Gallagher cited the U.S. Marshals investigation as a cause for urgency in building a new jail: “We’re under the gun here. The federal government is looking at us. We have all these court cases. We have these deaths that we have to deal with. … We have no choice but to move forward.”
Instead of resorting to a new jail, community advocates like the Cuyahoga County Jail Coalition want to redirect resources to address root causes of jailing, including addiction, poverty, a lack of community mental health resources, over-policing, and unaffordable bail. Although organizers agree Cuyahoga’s current facility has structural problems, including small cells and insufficient sunlight, some argue that the county has not fully explored the option of renovating or rebuilding at the current downtown site, which is conveniently located and accessible by public transportation.
“The most troubling realities of our County Jail have nothing to do with the building itself,” the jail coalition states on its website, arguing they are instead “the result of the very real, human problems perpetuated by administration mismanagement and staff misconduct.”
In a 2021 law journal article, UCLA School of Law Assistant Professor Aaron Littman identified a growing trend of sheriffs and local officials portraying jail modernization as a solution to safety issues. But this sort of proposal tends to miss the mark, he told The Appeal.
“That ‘modern’ jail will be full, and then overcrowded, and then not modern very quickly,” said Littman. “There are perpetual cycles of trying to address problems by building new facilities that don’t work durably. In part because they fill up, and in part because the problem wasn’t really the facility to begin with.”
Josiah Quarles, a member of the jail coalition and the director of organizing and advocacy for the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, expressed similar concerns. “Obviously, we don’t want people living in conditions that contribute to deaths, violence, sickness, all of that,” he told The Appeal. “But if we just reimagine this same framework, in a new building, eventually we will get back here again. And it doesn’t take that long, honestly.”
To truly solve these issues, Quarles argued the county must work to decrease the overall population of the jail.