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Cuyahoga Jail Puts Limits On New Inmates, Prepares For COVID-19 Spike

An inmate makes a first appearance at Cuyahoga Common Pleas Court in March, when pandemic precautions were first put in place. [Matthew Richmond / ideastream]
photo of jail video hearing

Officials at the Cuyahoga County Jail say the surge in coronavirus cases across Ohio hasn’t similarly affected the jail population. But to keep COVID-19 out of the jail, those charged with misdemeanors will not be sent to jail, except in cases of domestic violence.

According to Cuyahoga County Administrator of Corrections Ronda Gibson, there is not yet a similar agreement with the City of Cleveland about who can be brought to the jail.

As of Tuesday, there were three confirmed cases of COVID-19 among the 1,458 inmates at the jail in Downtown Cleveland.

“I do expect that as the prevalence increases in the county, that our number will go up because as you bring new inmates in, and if they’re positive, it’s only reasonable to know your number is going to increase,” said Gibson.

According to the order from Sheriff David Schilling, MetroHealth CEO Akram Butros told county judges last Friday that there could likely be a dramatic expansion of COVID-19 cases in the jail if the population wasn’t quickly reduced. MetroHealth nurses are in charge of medical care at the jail.

With a jail population only about 300 short of capacity, new arrivals can no longer be placed in single-occupancy cells as a precautionary measure until it’s clear they aren’t carrying the virus. Double occupancy cells are being used instead.

Each new arrival is tested on their first day at the jail and again on the seventh day, Gibson said.

“And if those people are negative, then they get to move into general population,” she said. “At any time, if they start to be severely symptomatic, or test positive, they are moved to the proper units which are designated for those people.”

But placing new arrivals in a cell with another inmate means that if one inmate turns out to be carrying the virus, it is highly likely to spread to their cellmate, she said.

“I think that we’re dealing with this on a day-to-day basis,” Gibson said. “Right now, we’re trying to strategize what to do if we have significant call-offs of staff.”

During the early part of the pandemic, the county court was able to bring the jail population below 1,000 in preparation for a potential outbreak.

According to court officials, judges are reviewing cases to determine who can be released now. But the courts have not restarted weekend hearings or other efforts adopted in the spring to reduce the jail population.

Judges voted earlier this month to delay jury trials until Dec. 1. They’ll vote again before restarting trials, said Administrative Judge Brendan Sheehan.

“From the very beginning, we’ve operated in this courthouse as if the county was a purple county,” said Sheehan, referring to the state’s public health advisory system, in which purple represents the highest level of coronavirus risk.

According to Sheehan, the contact tracing done after people infected with the virus have been traced to the Justice Center has indicated that coronavirus transmission occurred outside the courthouse.

“The problem is really that the spike in numbers [in the community] is just so risky,” Sheehan said.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.