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Cuyahoga County Jail Taking Dramatic Steps to Stem COVID-19 Outbreak

an exterior photo of Cuyahoga County jail
Nick Castele
Cuyahoga County is searching for ways to bring the jail population below 1,000 to properly quarantine inmates potentially infected with the coronavirus.

About 300 COVID-positive inmates and 69 staff members were out last week with COVID-19 illness or exposure, so the Cuyahoga County is taking several dramatic steps to stem an outbreak of the coronavirus in the jail.

The Ohio National Guard has been called on to fill in for sick staff, inmates meeting certain criteria have been released, and the state’s restrictions on inmate transfers have been challenged in court.

According to Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley, the governor’s office agreed to loosen restrictions in response to the lawsuit, changing the required quarantine period before transfer to 10 days, instead of 14.

The county dropped its suit after O'Malley reached an agreement with the state. O’Malley’s office and jail officials filed a lawsuit with the Ohio Supreme Court Dec. 2 challenging the state’s restrictions on inmate transfers and calling the requirements “onerous and unauthorized by Ohio law.”

State prison officials had been requiring a 14-day quarantine period for all sentenced inmates waiting for transfer from Cuyahoga County to a state facility, along with a negative coronavirus test before transport.

Under state law, the ODRC is required to accept inmates within five days of sentencing.

“At one point we were up to 130 inmates in our correctional facility that were due to be transferred,” O’Malley said. “We tried to broker a resolution that would work for both parties.”

According to jail administrator Ronda Gibson, to properly quarantine new arrivals at the jail, its population needs to be down around 1,000. It’s currently about 1,300.

“Unfortunately, we still have people coming in as well,” Gibson told Cuyahoga County Council a week ago. “We continue to work that on a daily basis, actually, and identify some inmates that come in and maybe have significant health considerations, assuming they don’t have really serious cases, we would try to move them in and out as fast as possible.”

On Dec. 14, the jail began releasing inmates in prison for parole violations and those sentenced for misdemeanor crimes other than domestic violence convictions.

Municipal courts where the misdemeanor sentences originated have the option of picking up the prisoners upon release.

“There are ongoing talks with adult parole,” O’Malley said. “We are probably going to continue to handle their prisoners and there will just be expedited pick up and transport [to state prison].”

Cuyahoga County Council members continued to pressure county officials to bring the jail population down during a safety committee meeting. Committee Chairman Michael Gallagher questioned whether county judges were doing enough to get people out of the jail, either on bail or with state prison transfers.

“Police might take you to jail, they don’t keep you in jail. The judges keep people in jail,” Gallagher said. “And it’s their discretion, for many lower level cases, whether those people are going to stay in jail or not.”

Court and county public safety officials have said there were many low-level offenders in the jail in the spring, making it easier to bring the population below 1,000 at that time.

Weekend hearings for new arrests, which were held early in the pandemic in an effort to keep the jail population low, have not re-started.

The county also accepted an offer from the governor and ODRC to bring in National Guard troops to cover for the dozens of jail staff out because of a positive COVID test or exposure to the illness.

Infections among corrections officers at the jail are causing serious staffing challenges, according to Bob Coury, Cuyahoga County’s chief of public safety.
“As a result, we welcome the National Guard’s help in order to protect, to keep our inmates safe, and to be able to make sure we have as few lockdowns as possible,” Coury said
Troops arrived in Cleveland last Wednesday for orientation, as many as 50 are expected to work inside the jail.

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