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Ohio Jail Faces $2.8 Million Lawsuit After Claims of Abuse Are Made By Dozens of Men

The suit is the latest of at least three complaints filed against the Portage County Jail this year.

A lawsuit seeking a $2.8 million fund for 28 men who were allegedly abused at the Portage County Jail in Ohio is the latest of at least three complaints filed against the facility this year—including one by a former mayoral candidate who is accusing the sheriff’s office and a host of other named defendants of wrongdoing.

Brett McClafferty, a former member of the Ohio Workforce Investment Board and one-time mayoral candidate in Streetsboro, Ohio, filed suit in late September, citing medical malpractice by a contractor for the sheriff’s office and violent retribution from guards while he was held at Portage County in 2017 and 2018.

McClafferty’s lawsuit turned out to be just the beginning. By the end of October, a dozen men who had been incarcerated at the jail had come forward alleging abuse by guards that included repeated beatings, the use of pepper spray, and being confined, sometimes naked, in “a particularly brutal spot inside the jail: the court hallway,” according to one of many reports by 19 News on the alleged abuse.

By early December, the lawsuit seeking the $2.8 million fund had been filed. Amanda Griffiths of Kent, Ohio, joined with Austin Frederick, who himself was formerly incarcerated at Portage County, to file the suit. Griffiths said the litigation was in response to the “brutal” July 2018 beating of her brother, Larry Tawney, by jail guards. According to Griffiths, the attack almost severed the cartilage in Tawney’s jaw, resulted in severe injuries to his groin, and left him with rectal bleeding that was still present more than a month later when Griffiths and her sister visited him after he was transferred to another facility. 

“There was blood in the seat,” during the visit on Aug. 30, Griffiths told The Appeal. In addition to the compensation fund, the lawsuit seeks to compel Victor Vigluicci, Portage County’s chief prosecutor, to take actions that include preventing jail personnel from both engaging in further abuse and covering up instances of past abuse. The complaint, filed in the county’s Court of Common Pleas on Dec. 5, also seeks to temporarily bar Portage County Jail from contracting with Correct Care Solutions because the company “poses a reasonable threat to the safety, health, and welfare of inmates.”

Citing McClafferty’s federal filing and the 28 men who have since come forward, the suit accuses jail staff of “using county property to inflict corporal punishments, engage in excessive force, and senselessly injure inmates.” 

The suit further alleges that jail employees are engaging in a cover-up by destroying records, including digital camera recordings that show abuse of incarcerated men by guards.

In addition to the lawsuits, 20 men who were formerly incarcerated in the Portage County Jail, including McClafferty, have filed a petition asking the Ohio attorney general’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation to scrutinize conditions in the jail. A separate complaint has been filed with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission. According to a Nov. 29 report in the Record-Courier, though, the attorney general’s office will not investigate the abuse allegations—a position the office confirmed in a statement to The Appeal.

According to a spokesperson for Attorney General Dave Yost, the Bureau of Criminal Investigation “can only investigate a crime if requested by local law enforcement or a prosecutor.” A spokesperson for the Civil Rights Commission told The Appeal that although her office has received a complaint, most issues that arise inside the jail aren’t within the agency’s jurisdiction.

One Ohio organization has asked for an inquiry. On Nov. 29, the Buckeye State Sheriff’s Association announced that it had asked the sheriff’s office in Lake County, two counties north of Portage, to investigate the Portage County abuse allegations. The request came in response to Sheriff David Doak’s request to the association for an outside investigator. 

According to the Nov. 29 account in the Record-Courier, the 20 men who have filed a petition with the state attorney general’s office said they don’t trust the sheriff’s association, citing a conflict because the group receives financial support from the Portage County sheriff’s office.

McClafferty drew headlines as a 19-year-old in 2007, when he ran for mayor of Streetsboro. According to his lawsuit, he was held in the Portage County Jail for 219 days in September 2017 on a secret indictment on charges of forgery and theft. His suit, which has been filed in the Eastern Division of U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, says that his ordeal of medical malpractice and physical abuse began soon after he was incarcerated.

According to the complaint, McClafferty has high blood pressure as a result of anxiety, a condition his primary care physician was successfully treating with Xanax and Celexa. Within a few days after arriving at Portage, a doctor contracted through Coleman Professional Services refused to provide McClafferty with those medications, saying the prescriptions violated the jail’s “narcotic free jail policy.”

Over the next month, the complaint says, McClafferty’s Coleman Professional Services doctor ignored two court orders to provide him with the correct medication. The doctor eventually prescribed first “breathing exercises,” and next a regimen of three medications—one for high blood pressure, and two antipsychotics, including one for a condition the complaint says McClafferty has never been diagnosed with: schizophrenia.

According to the complaint, on Oct. 20, 2017, McClafferty, who was nervous about taking medication for a mental health condition he had never been diagnosed with, refused to take the pills. As a result, the complaint says, he was beaten by jail guards, dragged out of the housing unit in a manner that dislocated his left shoulder, stripped naked, and locked up in the court hallway area—which, the complaint says, is “kept at approximately 50 degrees Fahrenheit”—where he was forced to lie naked on the floor with no blanket or other bedding.

After eventually being taken to the hospital for his shoulder and discharged back to the jail, McClafferty started taking the antipsychotics. McClafferty also attempted to have jail authorities investigate his abuse, an investigation the complaint says was handed over to the father of one of the guards who beat him. In March 2018, the complaint says, McClafferty was once again assaulted for refusing to take one of the medications.

McClafferty, who has since been convicted in Portage and Trumbull counties, was incarcerated at the Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Lorain County when his suit was announced in September. He has sued for $10.7 million, saying that he is dealing with lasting medical issues as a result of medical malpractice and physical abuse. In an Oct. 4, 2019, report by 19 News, a former Portage County Jail cellmate confirmed that officers “drug [McClafferty] down to the court hallway” for refusing to take medication.