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In Ken Mills Trial, State Inspector Says Cuyahoga Jail Was A 'Disaster'

Conditions at the Cuyahoga County Jail between 2017 and 2019 led to eight inmate deaths and several lawsuits. [Matthew Richmond / Ideastream Public Media]
photo of cuyahoga county jail

The trial of former Cuyahoga County Jail administrator Ken Mills closed out its second week with the cross examination of former Sheriff Cliff Pinkney and testimony from Ohio jail inspector Joel Commins, who said 2018 was a turning point for the jail.

From 2013 to 2016, the state had two inspectors covering more than 300 jails in the state. Commins was responsible for the northern part of Ohio and began inspecting Cuyahoga County Jail in 1999.

He testified that conditions in the jail deteriorated dramatically in 2018.

“It was a disaster,” Commins said. “It was dirty, people sleeping all over the floor, toilets not working, showers not working.”

Commins credited the poor conditions to a decision to accept newly arrested people from Cleveland police after the city closed its jail.

The 2018 inspection was the state’s first following a damning U.S. Marshals Service report that first made public inhumane conditions in the jail. Prior to that inspection, the state had given the jail passing grades.

Commins also testified to a 2018 dispute with Mills over the practice of redzoning, where prisoners are held in their cells for extended periods as a way to handle understaffing.

The state was investigating the jail’s use of redzoning in response to a prisoner complaint.

“Redzoning, if it becomes a daily occurrence, they’re not up to standards, they’re not following their staffing plan,” Commins said.

Commins asked to visit the jail. In response, Mills argued there is no state law against redzoning and questioned whether the state had the authority to inspect the jail.

Commins said Mills eventually allowed him into the jail, and said he ultimately found the prisoner’s complaint to be inaccurate.

Earlier in the day, Pinkney was grilled by Mills’ attorney, Kevin Spellacy, about his involvement in major decisions at the jail. Prosecutors from the Ohio Attorney General's Office have painted Mills as the responsible party for the jail's woes, circumventing Pinkney, his superior, to enact policy. 

Prosecutors presented, as an example, an effort by Mills to block the hiring of additional nurses at the jail because Mills wanted a different outside contractor to handle medical services. Mills sent an e-mail in 2017 to former county Budget Director Maggie Keenan telling her not to fill a request made by Pinkney for two additional nurses.

But Pinkney was in favor of delaying those hires, too, Spellacy contended, showing the jury a later e-mail Pinkney sent to Keenan in which he said the county should wait to hire the nurses until the jail began accepting new prisoners from the Cleveland jail, which would be closing soon.

Pinkney explained he just wanted to ask for a larger number of nurses later.

"Trying to hire two was such a battle. I didn’t want to keep fighting with Office of Budget and Management,” Pinkney said. “I knew that we were going to need more help. I wanted to get an accurate count of what help we needed and fight that fight at that time.”

During 2017, Mills had proposed switching the jail’s medical care provider from a combination of MetroHealth doctors and county nurses to a private company called NaphCare.

The proposal came in response to County Executive Armond Budish's request for a 10% budget reduction from all county departments.

Pinkney said the sheriff’s department had to find new revenue to meet that goal, but he opposed the plan to switch to a private company for jail medical care, which Mills contended could save the county $3 million a year in 2018 and 2019.

“Mr. Mills wanted to get rid of Metro because, again, he wanted to be able to control the medical services,” Pinkney said.

The prosecution alleges that Mills allowed medical care at the jail to deteriorate because he wanted to change the medical care provider.

Pinkney forwarded  Mills' NaphCare proposal as part of his budget plan to the county executive’s office. The proposal was never adopted by the county.

Prosecutors expect to finish presenting their case when the trial resumes Tuesday.

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