The new year likely to bring progress on new Cuyahoga County jail

Protesters outside the Cuyahoga County Jail in Downtown Cleveland
The Cuyahoga County Jail has been the site of several protests in the last few years, as poor conditions inside prompted news stories and lawsuits. [Matthew Richmond / Ideastream Public Media]

Cuyahoga County is expected to make a series of major decisions on its new jail in 2022.

Officials are currently considering locations for the jail.

According to a county spokeswoman, there are two frontrunners under consideration by the county. Based on news reports, one location is in an industrial site in Slavic Village. It’s unclear where the other frontrunner is.  

The county has also opened the selection process through Feb. 7 for submissions from property owners.

“We are looking to make sure there are no other possibilities,” county spokeswoman Mary Louise Madigan said.

The steering committee overseeing plans for the new jail will eventually make a recommendation to the county, which will purchase the site.

In November, 2020, the committee decided building a new jail separated from the courts was the best way forward. The future of the courthouse building, which is connected to the current jail, is still undecided.

One of the criteria is to minimize the travel between courts and the new jail. Another is for a site up to 40 acres to build a low-rise jail.

The county recently hired a design architect to come up with a plan for the new building, but the architect faces an unclear picture of how many people will be housed at the new jail.

That number has been hard to nail down, the county’s public safety chief, Bob Coury, said.

For the last few months, the population has stayed around 1,500. That’s up from less than 1,000 during the early days of the pandemic, but down from around 2,000 in 2018. And the current number is inching up from the jail project consultant’s recommendation of a population of 1,360.

“And so that obviously leads to the question, ‘Hey, some of the original thinking about the jail was a rated occupancy of 1600, which means you can only have 1360 effectively in the jail,’” Coury said. “How do you reconcile that with this number you’ve been hitting, kind of plateauing at?”

So the county is asking designers to come up with a plan for a jail occupancy rating of 2,400 people. State law requires a rated occupancy several hundred beds larger than the average daily occupancy.

“The core, the HVAC, the water, the utilities is going to be designed with a rated occupancy of 2,400,” said Coury.

The county doesn’t know how many people they’ll need to house there. On one hand, the current number of about 1,550 is probably too low because a pandemic-related order from the sheriff limiting who can be brought to the jail remains in place. When that order is lifted, the population will increase.

The county also opened a diversion center this year to reduce the population at the jail. They are seeking ways to send more people there instead of the jail, especially from the city of Cleveland.

And officials hope a new, centralized system for booking people into the jail and setting bail will reduce the population.

“Until we get through COVID, until we get diversion fully participated by Cleveland, until we get central booking further in place, we’re going to need these flexible designs for the new jail,” Coury said.

And finally county has to decide how it will pay for the new jail.

County Executive Armond Budish proposed making permanent a 0.25 percent sales tax originally put in place to build the convention center. The estimated price tag for the new jail is as much as $550 million.

The proposal requires approval from county council.

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