As Cleveland jail deaths continue, protesters demand justice

On May 10, Nicholas Colbert became the latest person to die in the Cuyahoga County Jail, the ninth in less than a year. The 36-year-old Army National Guard veteran was arrested for drug possession less than 48 hours prior to his death, which jail authorities have called a suicide. Colbert’s mother had called police, as she had sadly thought the struggling heroin addict would be safer in jail than in the streets.

The Coalition to Stop the Inhumanity in the Cuyahoga County Jail (SICCJ) protested outside the jail May 23. The rally and march were one of many demonstrations held since the group formed last year in response to the spike in deaths and conditions which U.S. federal marshals described as “inhumane.” More than 100 people demonstrated and chanted, “The rich set the bail; the poor go to jail” and other slogans targeting the Cuyahoga County Council and County Executive Armond Budish.

A federal investigation began after the sixth person died in custody last year. In the 10 previous years, no more than two fatalities had occurred inside the jail. Investigators found that staff failed to prevent deaths attributed to suicide and drug overdose.

Inmates recently released or currently housed in the jail have reported that there has been no improvement in the deplorable conditions they have been forced to endure. These conditions include inadequate medical care, poor quality food, denial of basic necessities such as toilet paper, abuse by guards, and lack of sanitation and overcrowding.

When challenged by SICCJ members at a council meeting, Budish claimed things had improved, giving as an example the fact that pregnant women no longer sleep on the floor. However, with the population exceeding the jail’s capacity, many inmates do sleep on floors.

Most of those languishing in this hellhole are in for nonviolent offenses and would be out if they could afford bail. This was the situation that confronted some of the deceased inmates. One of SICCJ’s ongoing projects is a petition campaign pushing for bail reform.

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