Marcus Harris started working for the county in 2012. He was a nurse in the county jail, and worked his way up to director of nursing by 2014.
By 2017, he was working long hours. He did not have enough staff, and sometimes had to pick up extra shifts. The pace was hectic and the work stressful. Inmates would find creative reasons to get out of their cells when there were emergencies, fights or their pods were “redzoned,” a practice where inmates are kept in their cells and a single guard is placed in charge of one or more pods of inmates.
Redzoning, Harris told Cleveland Magazine, had become more frequent. Inmates would claim minor injuries, like chest pains, to get out of their cells. Some days, Harris said, there could be up to 10 inmates claiming medical emergencies.
One bright spot was his friend and coworker, a nurse supervisor named Gary Brack. “I feel I could walk into the streets in Cleveland, and I would never have to worry about anything,” Harris said. “Because people respected me, and respected Gary, and respected our tradition.”
By the middle of 2017, Harris had decided he had to find another job. In July or August, Harris said, he had gotten in a yelling match with Ivey over an incident involving a transgender inmate who wasn’t given a bra. Harris, who, like Brack, is openly gay, was appalled by the situation.
As Harris looked for jobs, another round of budget hearings began. The administration proposed cuts at the jail again. Mills, and others, again advocated for outsourcing food operations, this time with a proposed savings of $400,000. They also pitched the idea of changing medical care providers for the jail, a proposed savings of $2 million.
Council balked at the proposals. Councilman Brady found the proposal to change medical providers, possibly to a company called NaphCare, worrying. It made little sense to him that MetroHealth, the county hospital, was not in charge of all jail medical services.
The cuts, Brady thought, were a pattern.
“Clearly, [Mills’] marching orders were to save money. That’s what he was there for,” Brady told Cleveland Magazine. “He had no background in jails, he had no background in these matters. He had been in the Coast Guard for his whole career. And he was trying to carry out what he felt was his mission, from my point of view.”
With the deadline to approve the 2018-19 budget fast approaching, negotiations with the administration broke down over multiple issues, including the jail cuts, Brady said. Council signed off on a budget to its own specifications and passed it. The jail cuts were left out.
In January 2018, Harris left for a new job across the country. The county jail started accepting Cleveland prisoners in March, and soon a bureaucratic, behind-the-scenes fight involving the medical care of more than 2,000 inmates spilled into public view.
On May 14, Mills came to a Board of Control meeting with a request to spend $24,988. The county needed to hire temporary nurses at the recently opened Bedford Heights jail to deal with the influx of prisoners from Cleveland, Mills said. MetroHealth was in charge of the doctors in the Bedford Heights jail, but the nurses, like Harris, worked for the county. Several, Mills said, had turned the job down. He needed to make up for the lack of permanent staff.
The request got kicked to a May 22 council Public Safety & Justice Affairs committee meeting. There, Mills repeated what he’d told the board — he had offered positions to nurses, but they had turned it down because the pay wasn’t good enough. That’s why he needed the extra $24,988.
Councilman Michael Gallagher, a gregarious Strongsville Republican, was skeptical. Mills’ story didn’t make sense to him. There had to be another reason these nurses weren’t getting hired.
“What was the roadblock? Or, more directly, who was the roadblock?” he asked Mills.
Mills stuttered. Gallagher cut him off.
“And if you don’t tell me who the roadblock is, or what the roadblock is, then you’re the roadblock. Now who is it?”
Mills hesitated. “I…I, I don’t know.”
Brack, who worked for MetroHealth as a nursing supervisor, came to the lectern next with a bombshell: Pinkney had approved several years worth of requests to hire nurses, but Mills, through an unspecified bureaucratic maneuver, had stopped them.
“There seems to be, it’s almost a form of passive-aggressive behavior,” Brack said. “What the director [Mills] tells us, is not what pans out.”
Jane Platten, MetroHealth’s chief of staff and senior vice president, came to the lectern next and corroborated what Brack had said: As the medical director of the facility, MetroHealth submitted recommendations about how many nurses the county should hire. The conversation about those recommendations, Platten said, often revolved around whether the number of staff was too high. The county wanted fewer staff, and MetroHealth wanted more.
“The recommendation we made specifically for Bedford [Heights] was denied, I understand, by Ken Mills,” Platten said. “It was budgetary, potentially. I don’t recall the specific
Brack then returned to the lectern, and painted a picture of what sounded like a jail on the verge of crisis. There was not enough security staff, so inmates were locked in their cells longer. During redzoning, calls to the medical unit would increase, he said, because they wanted out of their cells.
In a letter council received after the hearing, Harris backed up Brack’s testimony, writing that Mills had blocked hiring additional nurses in the past by going over the sheriff’s head, that redzoning was increasingly frequent, and that safety concerns were being overlooked.
“Our physicians, our nurse practitioners, do feel unsafe,” Brack said.
Mills, looking incredulous, returned to the podium to defend himself. He had addressed several safety concerns, he said, and there hadn’t been major security issues. He denied having held up nurse hiring.
The hearing landed on Council President Dan Brady. Mills’ proposal to change medical providers during the last year’s budget had gotten his antenna up, Brady said.
“I’m not sure everybody understands how serious this issue is. It’s not a line item somewhere,” Brady said, his voice rising with emphasis. “It is really a life and death situation that, if not handled properly, could lead to very big trouble.”
The next day, according to reporting by Cleveland.com and records from a lawsuit Brack later filed, Budish had a meeting with MetroHealth CEO Akram Boutros. Budish requested Brack be removed. Shortly after, MetroHealth fired Brack.
“I was very concerned that these professionals were telling me, publicly, directly, people are going to die,” Councilman Gallagher told Cleveland Magazine. “It was surreal to me, because I couldn’t understand. We took it seriously. We were concerned. We were scared.
“Everything was, ‘OK we’ll take care of it,’ ” Gallagher continued. “And they didn’t.”
The deaths in the jail system began about four weeks later.
On June 10, Theodore Carter Jr., 55, died of complications due to myelofibrosis, a rare blood cancer, after being transported to MetroHealth.
On June 26, Esteben Parra, 32, died after a meth overdose.
On July 1, Larry C. Johnson, 51, died after hanging himself in his cell.
On Aug. 28, Joseph Arquillo, 47, died after a heroin, fentanyl, Xanax and cocaine overdose.
On Aug. 30, Gregory Fox, 36, died after hanging himself in a cell.
On Aug. 31, Randall Kain, 46, died after a fentanyl overdose in the Euclid jail.
Through the summer, the corruption investigation had gone mostly quiet. A steady stream of subpoenas trickled out, concerning contracts the county had signed with technology companies. But attention had shifted to the jail. October came. The county was supposed to begin offering its prison services to other cities. But the deaths continued.
On Oct. 2, Allan Martin Gomez Roman, 44, died after hanging himself in a cell.
On Oct. 4, news broke that the FBI was looking into civil rights violations at the jail. Budish said he would hire an outside expert to examine the situation. The county eventually settled on the U.S. Marshals Service.
By then, Budish was facing a Republican challenger, Peter Corrigan, who had entered the race as a write-in candidate. The former COO was running on a platform of making county government more efficient. But he also wanted to make sure there was an alternative on the ballot, should the corruption investigation go sideways. By July, he had a poll in hand that showed the impact of months of bad headlines: he was between 7 and 11 points of Budish. But on Nov. 6, Budish won in a landslide, getting 67% of the vote. Corrigan was not surprised he’d lost, he told Cleveland Magazine. But he was surprised by the margin.
After the election, all hell broke loose. On Nov. 8, John Russo, the administrative judge for the county’s Common Pleas Court, sent Budish a letter that said the 34 county judges could no longer trust jail administrators, Cleveland.com reported. The next day, a letter from five mental health docket judges said mentally ill inmates were not getting proper care. Five days after that, Mills resigned.
Then came the U.S. Marshals report, based on jail visits and more than 200 inmate interviews conducted from Oct. 30-Nov. 1, 2018.
The facility was dirty. Inspectors saw mice in the food storage area. The warden, Ivey, held food back from prisoners to punish them. Inmates weren’t given toilet paper, toothpaste or toothbrushes. Some inmates reported being redzoned for more than 27 hours at a stretch. Teenagers were housed with adults. There were no curtains in the showers. The staff seemed not to know the fire evacuation plan. Inmates, including pregnant women, were sleeping on mats on the floor. Inmates lived in fear of the jail’s security response team, dubbed the “Men in Black” because of their paramilitary-looking uniforms, several of whom were overheard by inspectors calling interviewees “snitches.”
The facility was rated to hold 1,765 people, and regularly held upward of 2,000. Inspectors counted 2,420 on their first day there. Those inmates were enduring those conditions for, on average, 29 days.
To respond, Budish went to the Cleveland.com newsroom with Pinkney for an exclusive interview. He hadn’t known about the conditions, Budish said. He said he had relied on the state’s jail inspection reports. Those reports, obtained by Cleveland Magazine, gave the jail passing grades in 2016 and 2017. Budish said he was putting a plan in action to fix the issues. The long-hoped-for regionalization plan was put on hold. A Cleveland.com investigation found that the county’s primary motivator for the regionalization was to increase revenue. “How did things get so bad?” Cleveland.com asked. “The answer, according to a two-month Cleveland.com investigation, is money.”
A group of activists had noticed too. In the wake of the report, they met for the first time in early December at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cleveland, in Cleveland Heights. The group of neighborhood and progressive groups called themselves the Coalition to Stop the Inhumanity at the Cuyahoga County Jail.
On Dec. 11, they organized a protest outside the county building, and then went up to the fourth floor, to a council meeting. In more than an hour of testimony, they presented their demands: an end to the horrendous conditions, and bail reform, so fewer people ended up in the jail.
“The issues that we’re seeing are neither Republican nor Democrat. They’re neither conservative nor liberal,” Republican Corrigan said, making a surprise appearance in the crowd of lefty protestors. “They are an issue of humanity. And they need to be addressed.”
“To the many people who came to speak, I want to say I appreciate and share your concerns that were expressed today about the jail,” Budish said to the protestors, reading from a written statement. “Nothing is more important than the safety of our inmates, and our staff and the community.”
The Marshals report, he said, was devastating. Shower curtains had been installed, and food was no longer being withheld as a punishment. Pregnant women weren’t sleeping on the floor, and toilet paper was being distributed. The county was working on kitchen issues, and Orkin was coming in to kill pests. The use of the Men in Black was being re-evaluated. Money had been added to hire nurses, and MetroHealth was going to take over all jail nursing by 2019. The county was working toward a mental health diversion center, and working toward building a new justice center, which would include a new jail. The county was also in support of an ongoing bail reform initiative.
“Finally, I want you to know that I understand how painful this is for our community. We are not proud of the fact that our jail has been labeled inhumane, where some of the conditions are way below par,” said Budish. “I know that there are people in this room or watching this who have loved ones in our jail. I take this responsibility very, very
On Dec. 30, Brenden Kieskisz, 27, died after hanging himself in the jail.
Kieskisz loved music, Cleveland.com has reported, and spent his free time writing hip-hop songs and performing, among other places, at Phantasy Nightclub in Lakewood. He also struggled with opiate addiction.
He was picked up by police Christmas Day.
He called his father from jail. “Dad I’m not going to make it here. I’m going to go crazy,” Kieskisz said. “You got to get me out of here.” A few days later, he was dead.
On Dec. 31, in the evening, a group of about 30 protestors assembled outside
Budish’s gated community next to Beachwood Place. One held a sign that said, “Not in Our Name.” “We are here because nestled behind this cozy, private gated community lies the root of our problems,” LaTonya Goldsby said, according to News 5 Cleveland. The protestors waved their signs as the rain poured down.