Struggle launched against new Cuyahoga County jail

Cleveland — Over the past four years the Cuyahoga County Jail has become especially notorious for deplorable conditions. These include poor food and medical care, overcrowding, prisoners sleeping on floors, extreme abuse by guards, and the understaffing and neglect that have contributed to over a dozen preventable deaths. Located in downtown Cleveland in the misnamed “Justice Center,” the county jail has been the site of many protests by the Cuyahoga County Jail Coalition (JailCo).

Credit: Cuyahoga County Jail Coalition

Opened in 1976 with an annex built in 1994, the jail’s age is not the cause of the abuse prisoners have been subjected to. But Cuyahoga County Council and County Executive Armond Budish are citing the inhumane situation in the current jail as an argument to construct a new jail, estimated to cost $550 million. Part of the financing will come from extending a county sales tax.

The site that Council has proposed is a shipping container yard, formerly an oil refinery, in an industrial area. Environmental cleanup would increase taxpayers’ costs to well above $550 million; EPA approval is needed before the site can be used for the jail. The same site was considered for a state prison 40 years ago until it was “found to be riddled with potentially hazardous chemicals. There was tetraethyl lead, used in making gasoline, sludge, asphalt, hydrocarbon liquids and vapors, solvents such as kerosene, acidic residue and asbestos.” Some cleanup has occurred since then but the extent of current contamination is unknown. (Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 4)

Nearly 20 county residents, representing a number of community organizations, gave public comment at the April 5 meeting of the Justice Center Project Executive Steering Committee. This committee, formed to study and make recommendations around the new jail project, is composed entirely of politicians – mostly judges and prosecutors. While they discuss specifics such as site location, they all treat the new jail itself – the most expensive Cuyahoga County project in history – as a done deal.

‘You cannot get well inside of a cell’

Not one resident spoke in favor of the proposed site and most opposed the new jail altogether. 

Speakers called for funds to instead be used for alternatives to incarceration. “You cannot get well inside of a cell,” said Rev. Reegie Bunch. “If you want to build something, build care, build treatment.” Azzurra Crispino, whose spouse has spent time in the county jail, argued that $550 million could be spent on schools, public housing and other “prevention strategies.”

Brenda Bickerstaff called on the committee to “include the community.” Bickerstaff’s brother Craig Bickerstaff was killed by Cleveland police in 2002 and her niece Ralkina Jones died in the Cleveland Heights jail in 2015.

Chrissy Stonebraker-Martinez, a JailCo steering committee member and co-director of InterReligious Task Force on Central America and Colombia, charged “our communities will become more unsafe and sick” if a jail is built “in the middle of a toxic brownfield.” The toxicity of the proposed site and the surrounding industrial area, with heavy truck traffic, will affect not only those incarcerated but visitors and jail workers. Another speaker pointed out that a nearby cement factory pollutes the area with silica dust.

“You put taxes on the poorest of us, then imprison us,” charged JailCo steering committee member Josiah Quarles. A sales tax hurts poor residents disproportionately because they have to spend a higher percentage of their income on necessities, with little to nothing left for savings. 

After the impassioned public comment session, the committee went into executive session, discussing the new site behind closed doors. After two hours they emerged and notified the community activists that they had not reached a decision. This delay in selecting the site represents a victory, at least temporarily, for the movement to stop jail construction. 

JailCo has launched a new campaign,“Stop the Cuyahoga County Jail construction project and redirect funds to care, not cages.” Already over 500 people have signed a petition to stop the plan. To sign go to


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