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Riot At Juvenile Detention Center Brought On By Excessive Confinement

Residents at the Cuyahoga County juvenile detention center broke windows, damaged ceiling tiles and property during a several hours long incident over the weekend. [Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court]
A cracked window at the Cuyahoga County juvenile detention center

Staffing shortages at the Cuyahoga County juvenile detention center led to housing conditions that resulted in a riot at the facility Saturday night.

Documents released by Cuyahoga County juvenile court officials detailing the incident also suggest the facility failed to meet federal staffing guidelines.

In a statement released Tuesday, the court described what happened over the weekend as vandalism.

“On August 7, 2021, at approximately 10:47 P.M., the Cuyahoga County Detention Center staff responded to an incident involving acts of vandalism being committed by three juvenile residents,” the court wrote in an unsigned statement. “The vandalism began when some residents failed to follow staff instructions. The juveniles escalated the incident by damaging ceiling tiles, a soap dispensary, windows, a TV, and the fire sprinkler system.”

Incident reports from the night offer some details that contradict the court’s statement.

According to the documents, there were two separate disturbances in Pods B and C of House 3 at the detention facility, involving a total of four juveniles who Ideastream Public Media will not name because of their ages.

In both cases, residents were upset about being held in their rooms for extended periods and not being allowed to make phone calls.  

Leah Winsberg, an attorney with the advocacy group Children’s Law Center, says she’s not surprised that staffing shortages at the detention center, which have led to fewer activities and access to support services, resulted in an incident like this.

“You could predict that kids are bound to have a response to that, a negative response, especially kids that have a history of trauma and mental health,” Winsberg said.

Staff statements show problems at the facility – extended confinement, understaffing and a lack of activities for residents – have remained largely unchanged since they were documented in a 2018 report by the Center for Children’s Law and Policy in Washington, D.C.

The riot stretched across two shifts at the facility – the second and third, which span from afternoon to early morning. During second shift, there were 125 juveniles held in detention. A total of 11 staff were present to monitor them.

During the overnight third shift, the staff level dropped to 7 total and the number of residents increased to 126. In House 3, where the riot occurred, there was one staff member to monitor 30 residents.

Under the federal  Prison Rape Elimination Act, participating juvenile facilities are expected to maintain a ratio of one security staff for every eight residents whenever juveniles are awake and 1 to 16 during overnight shifts.

The ratio during third shift was 1 to 18, assuming all the staff listed in the court’s logs were security staff. During the second shift, when the ratio should have been 1 to 8, it was more than 1 to 11.

The facility was, however, compliant with state law. Ohio Administrative Code requires a ratio of one staff member for up to 12 juveniles during waking hours and 1 to 25 during sleeping hours.

Over the course of several hours Saturday night and into Sunday morning, residents broke windows, smashed ceiling tiles and threw chairs and other furniture. In the incident reports, the box labeled “suicide attempt” and another labeled “suicide gesture” were both checked, along with one describing the incident as a riot.

According to one incident report, a juvenile stacked some furniture in a common room during the riot, attached one end of a sheet to the ceiling, wrapped the other around his neck, before unwrapping it and climbing down.

There’s no indication that follow up mental health treatment was requested for the resident who appears to have considered suicide.

According to one of the incident reports, the four residents involved in the riot were handcuffed and transported to House 4 where they were “confined” until “review of footage.”

Winsberg criticized the staff’s use of confinement.

“Policy mandates youth are only to remain in confinement until they have calmed down,” Winsber said. “Staff are mandated to perform regular checks to determine if the youth is calm to ensure they do not remain in confinement longer than necessary.”

It’s not clear how long confinement lasted. Court officials did not respond to follow up questions.

One staff person was also injured after falling while on their way to assist with the response. No residents were hurt.

The incident was brought under control in the early hours of Sunday morning after deputies from the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department were called in. Six additional residents were moved from damaged space in House 3 into House 4, which had been empty.

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