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Witness Testimony In Ken Mills Trial Highlights Conflicts In Management

Mills, far right, listens to witness testimony Tuesday. [Taylor Haggerty / Ideastream Public Media]
Mills, far right, hears witness testimony during trial.

Witnesses offered testimony to the career and behavior of former Cuyahoga County Jail Director Ken Mills Tuesday as a trial addressing his handling of the county jail continued.

Testimony included concerns over Mills’ starting salary, the decision to start housing Cleveland municipal jail inmates in the Cuyahoga County jail before adequate adjustments were made to accommodate them, and problematic conditions such as overcrowding and low staff numbers. Many also spoke to strained relationships between Mills and other county officials, including the jail’s finance director and former Sheriff Cliff Pinkney.

“He and the sheriff didn’t really see eye to eye,” said former Associate Warden Victor McArthur. “He said he wasn’t really worried about Pinkney, because [County Executive Armond] Budish had his back.”

One major concern during Mills’ time as director was a lack of medical staff onsite at the Euclid and Downtown Cleveland jails.

He thought the medical director was overstaffing the jail and requesting nurses that weren’t needed, said former Cuyahoga County Budget Director Maggie Keenan.

“He thought that they were staffing as if it were MetroHealth hospital, but he said there was a distinction between correctional medicine and hospital-based medicine,” Keenan said. “He thought that they were staffing the jail as if it were a hospital, and he said that’s not what we needed.”

In an email sent to county officials, Keenan outlined her own concerns about low pay, attrition and understaffing of medical personnel contributing to a “critical” situation in medical access for jail inmates. Keenan and Mills were both part of an email chain involving the hiring of an additional nurse in a request from medical staff.

Sheriff Pinkney was not involved in a majority of the emails and conversations about the jail between Keenan and Mills, Keenan said. That included discussion of taking on Cleveland inmates, requests for additional medical staff and proposals for the county’s two-year budget.

“The sheriff wasn’t involved in the jail. Ken was the one to talk to about the jail,” Keenan said. “The sheriff, he didn’t come to a lot of meetings, he didn’t come to a lot of director meetings. He wouldn’t have been the proper one to call.”

The question of whether Pinkney or Mills was responsible for the conditions at the jail during Mills’ tenure was at the center of opening statements when the trial began. Under state law, the sheriff is responsible for county jails, but multiple witnesses Tuesday expressed that Mills was more involved in jail operations.

The defense team pointed to staffing and overcrowding as longstanding problems at the jail, including both before and after Mills’ time as director. Those problems still persist to this day, argued lead attorney Kevin Spellacy, and the effort to bring Cleveland arrests into the county jail was being discussed before Mills was brought on.

“These staffing issues, it’s nothing new, right? Redzoning has existed for a long time,” Spellacy said to one witness, referring to the practice of keeping inmates in lockdown due to staffing shortages. “That kind of stuff certainly isn’t new.”

The prosecution also sought to demonstrate Mills' authority by pointing to his starting salary, which was above the upper limit for the position and higher than the sheriff's at the time.

But Spellacy argued Mills' beginning salary was on par with what he made when he worked in the previous county administration. And Spellacy said, the county raised Pinkney's salary to stay above Mills’.

Mills was charged in 2019 with five counts related to overcrowding, insufficient medical care and several deaths at the jail. The first three charges cover alleged lies he told Cuyahoga County Council during a May 2018 appearance. Two additional counts of dereliction of duty are for his role overseeing the jail during 2017 and 2018.

The trial is projected to continue through Friday.