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Cuyahoga County Council Committee Meeting Tense After Jail Report

Cuyahoga County Council's Public Safety Committee members questioned jail representatives why nurses had not received county-approved raises. [Glenn Forbes / ideastream]
In Cuyahoga County Council chambers, the Public Safety Committee questions representatives of the county jail.

At a contentious meeting of Cuyahoga County Council's Public Safety and Justice Affairs Committee Tuesday, chairman Michael Gallagher said he was "disappointed" not to receive a reform plan from Sheriff Cliff Pinkney in the wake of a scathing report from the U.S. Marshals Service that detailed "inhumane" conditions at the County Jail

County Executive Armond Budish requested the investigation after seven prisoners died in a four-month span between June and October. 

"We were under the impression" there would be a plan and a preliminary budget, Gallagher said. "Obviously, this should've been done a long time ago, but we can't look back, we're going to look forward. We're going to obviously have to give them the time to do it correctly. I'd rather have it done correctly than to rush into something, but the reality is, do we have even today to wait? We don't."

Sheriff Pinkney said he wasn't surprised that commitee members questioned his leadership or that Gallagher was expecting a plan, because the two had spoken previously.

"Unfortunately, last week I was off. I had some personal issues to take care of, so I didn't get a chance to address that plan," Pinkney said. "I do not want to come into an open forum with a half plan and not look prepared."

Committee members and county human resources representatives also sparred over pay raises that were approved for jail nurses, but apparently never implemented.

"We afforded the administration $3 to $5 (per hour) more for nurses to get them to come," Gallagher said. He said he had heard "through the grapevine" that nurses hadn't gotten raises.

Earlier this year, MetroHealth representatives  told council the jail had a shortage of nurses because the pay was too low. Adminstration officials promised to find out why the extra money hasn't been spent.

The committee also discussed the shortage of correctional officers at the jail. The Marshals' report found that the jail is frequently overcrowded and understaffed, resulting in prisoners who are often kept in cell pods for 20 or more hours, a procedure known as "red-zoning."

Sheriff Pinkney said absenteeism among guards is a major problem.

"If we had folks that came to work we probably wouldn't have to red zone," Pinkney said. "We can also use more staff, that's apparent. But the staffing level that we have right now, if everyone came to work, we wouldn't need to red zone."

Pinkney said three issues identified by the Marshals were immediately corrected: Withholding of food as punishment, using unsanitary food trays, and housing juveniles in the adult population.

Pinkney said he has not observed many of the major issues outlined in the report.

"I see an orderly, clean facility," Pinkney said. "We can always do better, of course. I speak with inmates. Of course they have their concerns. I bring those concerns up to the staff and we address them. I did not see anything out of place. I go there unannounced. I go there at different times, it's not scheduled, so they don't know when I'm coming. I go by myself because I've heard comments about being retaliated against and all that type of thing, so I always go by myself."

Gallagher expresed confidence in Pinkney, but the sheriff's leadership was questioned several times by committee members.

"The sheriff has to be able to be the sheriff," Gallagher said. "If he were allowed to run the jail, I don't believe we'd be in the position we're in today."

Gallagher said the committee expects an update on the jail from Pinkney at an upcoming hearing, but no date was set.

Pinkney said because of the size and scope of the federal report, he was unable to put a timeline on when he could present an action plan. 

Glenn Forbes is supervising producer of newscasts at Ideastream Public Media.