Building a new Cuyahoga County jail: here’s what we know after 3 years of planning
CLEVELAND, Ohio – With Cuyahoga County closing in on a location for its new jail and decisions about financing and construction soon to follow, the inertia of the multimillion-dollar project has refocused attention on a question that has nagged the project planners from the start: How big of a jail does the county need?
The 12-member Justice Center Steering Committee overseeing the project will vote Tuesday whether to pursue a 44-acre industrial plot near Tremont as the site for the jail. Their decision will either move the project forward toward construction or halt planning altogether.
For over three years, this group of officials from the jail, county, city of Cleveland, prosecutor’s office and courthouses have been locked in a of tug-of-war over the number of inmates current data tells them they should reasonably expect to hold, versus a smaller number they’d prefer.
Nobody wants to build a jail that is too big, they agree. But they disagree about whether they have enough information right now to make a final decision on the facility’s size and scope.
Jeff Appelbaum, the county’s hired consultant on the project, unequivocally says they do. In fact, he went as far as to argue that officials have more information to guide their decisions on the jail today than past officials had for other major projects. Specifically, he referred to the failed Medical Mart-turned-Global Center for Health Innovation, for which he became a consultant and currently serves as the attorney for the facility’s governing board.
“Were there really studies that talked about how effective (the Medical Mart) would be? Was it really studied in terms of the market? Probably not. Not the way it should have been,” Appelbaum told committee members during a November 2021 meeting.
But the new jail, he said, “has been studied and studied and studied and studied. I don’t think there’s an issue that has been more studied, before a capital project, than this issue.”
As the county prepares to take another step toward building the new jail, cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer takes a look at how we got here – the years of work that went into planning, so far, and of course, how the pandemic complicated all of it. The following was compiled from over 15 public meetings, recordings and presentations, all of which are shared on Cuyahoga County’s Department of Public Works’s website.
Why build new? Why not renovate?
The county started with nine options for how to upgrade the existing downtown Justice Center, which it narrowed to four for further consideration in January 2020.
Only one of the combinations received unanimous support: to develop a courthouse on a new urban site and a new jail on a separate campus site. The other most-favored options were to relocate the jail to a new site and expand or renovate the courts in place, or to build a combined justice complex on a new site.
Common Pleas Judge Brendan Sheehan, a member of the steering committee, insisted the committee also explore a fourth option that would replace part of the jail, reuse another part, and renovate the courts.
Soon after, the committee decided to put off planning for the courthouse and only recently resumed conversations this year. Members still have not decided whether the courthouse will be renovated in place or built new on some other downtown site. Early estimates for each option top $1 billion.
For the jail, the study showed that just to bring the current structure up to standards – and ensure it complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act – would cost $200-300 million, without addressing programming or operations. And because of its height, the current jail could never accommodate expansion, should the population increase in the future. The county would have to use its Bedford or Euclid jails and out-of-county placement to accommodate any overflow.
Curtis Pulitzer, the detention programmer working with Appelbaum on the project, put it this way:
“The existing jail really cannot be renovated,” he told the committee. “It’s not even putting fresh icing on a stale cake. It’s just beyond really putting it into any state of compliance with state or best practices.”
In November 2020, the committee voted to move forward with building a new jail on a new site, which it believed would allow for improved programming, provide operational savings that could help pay off the debt sooner, and accommodate future expansion. The project has been estimated to cost $550 million, a number that Appelbaum is already warning might be challenged by escalating construction costs, bed-count fluctuations, unknown property costs, and a still-uncertain timeline for building.
How big should it be?
Up until September of 2021, consultants and committee members were planning for a rated 1,600-bed jail, with an operational capacity of 1,360 and a core expandable to 2,400 beds.
The benchmarks were set based on historical population data and intake trends that showed the jail population increasing, despite criminal and municipal filings declining. It also factored in the county’s aspirations to avoid incarcerating people unnecessarily.
If the county did nothing, an analysis projected the jail population would reach up to 4,529 by 2045. But, if the county worked to reduce admissions or shorten the length of an inmate’s stay through bond reform, the Diversion Center, Central Booking, and other efforts, occupancy rates could conceivably fall to 1,600, which would represent a 40% reduction in historical population, the analysis showed.
Committee members were even more ambitious. They wanted to strive for a population count closer to 1,000, considering much-greater reductions that facilities in other states had experienced after their own reforms.
Members began outlining plans for the Diversion Center, which was predicted to redirect as many as 340 people with mental health or substance abuse issues away from the jail and into treatment, depending on which types of charges qualified for the program.
Most of the reduction, though, was expected to come through Central Booking by allowing for quicker reviews of charges, diversion, and least restrictive bond options, thereby expediting the court process and shortening inmate stays.
Those two efforts alone were expected to get the county where it wanted to be within two years. Then the pandemic hit and the programs, like everything else, were delayed.
The Diversion Center opened 10 months ago, only the last four of which included the full participation of Cleveland law enforcement. It hasn’t yet yielded the impact expected. In a recent presentation to county council, Scott Osiecki, CEO of the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board, which oversees the center, reported 181 police referrals as of Dec. 31, 2021. Of those, 150 were authorized for admission, though it wasn’t clear how many were admitted. Participation is voluntary.
Construction on Central Booking at the current jail began in April 2021 but isn’t expected to be complete until May. The county also hasn’t hired a jail population manager to develop other reduction strategies.
Meanwhile, the average daily population in the jail has climbed, from a low of 900 at the height of the pandemic, to roughly 1,600 today, even with the courts fully operating and the sheriff’s office turning away some misdemeanant offenders and expanding its electronic monitoring program. Sheriff Viland believes a higher bed count is “more realistic” to historical population data and current trends.
But while most agree that population reduction efforts will have a positive impact at some point, the committee is planning for today. Based on today’s numbers, the jail they’ve been striving for would be undersized, Appelbaum said.
“We would not build a jail that is too small from day one, nor would (the state) permit us to do that,” Appelbaum said, noting the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction must approve the county’s rated capacity.
However, there’s time, yet, for those long-anticipated justice system reforms to bring the number down, Appelbaum says – at least eight to 10 months after a location is approved, with some additional wiggle room after construction begins.
Some members of the steering committee have suggested slowing down planning to allow more time for that to happen.
Prosecutor Michael O’Malley, Judge Brendan Sheehan, and Public Defender Cullen Sweeney have said repeatedly during the process that there are too many unknowns yet to make a final decision.
“Can we reasonably predict the jail population at this time? Sitting here today, right now, I think it’s very difficult to do that,” Sweeney said at a September 2021 meeting, when the question of increasing the planned jail capacity was first raised. “I certainly wouldn’t want to accept that we would go back to 2,000 people in the jail…I think we can do far better than that.”
Others, like Sheriff Christopher Viland and County Councilman Michael Gallagher, have made clear they will not entertain delays. They believe the cost of waiting – which consultants have estimated to be about $45 million per year, in addition to the human toll on inmates and corrections officers – is too high a price.
“Acting on the jail isn’t important, it’s necessary…we can’t lose money by indecision,” Gallagher told committee members at a November 2020 meeting. “We (county council) are going to move forward with this committee or without this committee.”
What could the new jail look like?
The county is planning a low-rise, 800,000 square-foot facility that would more closely resemble an office building than a jail. It wouldn’t require razor ribbon fencing or security towers, allowing it to better blend into its surrounding neighborhood.
Early designs for the jail’s interior focus on harnessing more natural light and consolidating resources within 48-person housing units, including visitation, basic medical services, and outdoor recreation to increase direct supervision and cut down on movement within the jail. Currently, inmates must be transported for all services.
It would also include over 300 mental health beds – more than double current availability – to provide more robust treatment meant to address potential underlying causes of criminal activity and prevent inmates from returning. Roughly 45% of Cuyahoga County inmates are receiving medication for mental illness, officials said.
The consolidated units may also have personnel benefits at a time when the sheriff’s department has struggled with hiring.
The jail currently has 66 housing units, which must be manned by at least 336 corrections officers. A new facility with larger housing units and fewer control rooms, however, would require fewer staff, officials say.
An early example, based on a 41-unit complex – when the county was still aiming for 1,600 beds – showed a new facility might require only 209 housing officers. That could provide a potential savings of 127 employees and roughly $9.5 million a year in salaries. Fewer control rooms could save 69 positions and another $5.1 million.
A new jail could also save $10 million in operating costs at the Euclid and Bedford jails, and $2.3 million in out-of-county placements. There would be an added cost of about $800,000 to transport inmates from the new jail to the downtown courthouses, planning experts said, but even then, a new jail could save the county $27 million a year.
What comes next?
For now, though, the project is “stalled” in the schematic design phase, Appelbaum told cleveland.com on Friday, at least until a location is confirmed. Some of the design elements for the new jail are site-specific, he said.
Once they have a location, it could be another nine months until construction begins – assuming the funding is in place – while officials finalize designs and a cost. During that period, the county said it will also be reaching out to the community for more input. Appelbaum’s team previously heard from over 370 residents about their priorities for the new facility last March.
Construction could then take 4-5 years to complete.
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