Opponents of a new jail in Garfield Heights asked Cuyahoga County Council members on Thursday to consider other ways the county can spend the hundreds of millions proposed for the jail.  

During public comment at the Thursday evening meeting, Garfield Heights residents and members of the Cuyahoga County Jail Coalition raised several concerns related to the new jail. 

Azzurra Crispino, with Prison Abolition Prisoners Support and a media liaison for the jail coalition, made a reference to the movie Field of Dreams

“If there’s one big lesson that I learned from that is, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” she said.  “And if we’re talking about jail, if you build it, you will fill it.”

Others shared her concern that a jail with more capacity will lead to more people being unnecessarily incarcerated. 

The discussion on whether and where to build a new jail has been going on for years, with several groups of people voicing their thoughts, from activists to judges to the public defender. 

County Executive Chris Ronayne last month proposed a site in Garfield Heights on Transportation Boulevard just north of Interstate 480 as the location for a new jail. The price tag for the project is estimated to be almost $750 million. 

Ronayne’s most recent proposal, presented at a Committee of the Whole meeting earlier Thursday afternoon, is a “central services campus” that would include reentry resources, diversion and pretrial services. 

Thursday night’s meeting included much of the same. Ronayne urged council members to move forward with the proposed plan quickly and not get sidetracked with other possible locations. Council members questioned the county executive’s sudden sense of urgency. 

‘We need to invest in our people’

Opponents of the plan said the county’s priority should be reducing the jail population both by releasing more people pre-trial and by dedicating funding to education, affordable housing, mental health response and other resources that could reduce crime and prevent people from ending up in jail in the first place. 

“I think an investment of this magnitude should be matched with community investments, where we have divested from for a long time and are at the root causes of what brings people to our county jail,” said Josiah Quarles, with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless. 

He said he recognizes the current state of the Cuyahoga County jail in downtown Cleveland is “awful” but happened over decades, “because people didn’t care about the people in those buildings. So before we invest in another building, we need to invest in our people.” 

There’s a huge need for safe, affordable and permanent housing in the region, Quarles said. Addressing that need would help address some of the conditions that lead to unsafe communities. 

Activists and Garfield Heights residents spoke out against the proposed new Cuyahoga County jail at the Cuyahoga County Council meeting  at the Cuyahoga County Administrative Building on July 6.
Activists and Garfield Heights residents spoke out against the proposed new jail at the Cuyahoga County Council meeting at the Cuyahoga County Administrative Building on July 6. Credit: Stephanie Casanova / Signal Cleveland

Caitlin Gaydos-Baker and her husband, Tim Gaydos-Baker, who live in Garfield Heights, both spoke out against the jail proposal. 

Tim Gaydos-Baker said the space and resources for a new jail could be used to improve the lives of county residents instead of “to provide a shiny new building to lock people up in.”

“And that is what happens when a new jail is built,” he said. “In order to see a return on the investment, it must be filled, it must be utilized. And so we must go looking for people to fill up those jail cells even when they are not threats to community safety.”

‘We need to do better’

Crispino pointed to studies showing ways to prevent crime in communities, including education. 

“We know $1 spent in education prevents $4 being spent in incarceration,” Crispino said. “We’ve known this since the ’70s. I’m not telling you anything new.” 

She asked the council members what they can do to help county residents. 

“It’s my personal belief that people only turn to crime when there are no other options available,” she said. “And I’m asking you to dig deep and really think about what can you do to disrupt this pipeline that is within your capacity.” 

Ronayne responded to some of the commenters by saying building a new jail is the county’s chance to do things differently. His campus plan, he said, would include on-site services for behavioral health, family support, reentry, vocational training and urban farming. 

“We know we can do better with diversion, we can do a whole lot better with pretrial services, with bail reform, and we need to do better,” Ronayne said. “We also know that there is a portion of the population who will be housed in a jail, and as we do that, we can even do better there.”

‘These are obstacles that can be addressed

After an independent study completed last year determined that, while possible, it was impractical to renovate the existing jail, Public Defender Cullen Sweeney ultimately agreed that a new jail was the best option. 

But the county needs to be aware of the challenges that come with moving the jail away from the downtown Justice Center, Sweeney said. 

“I think these are challenges and obstacles that can be addressed,” Sweeney said. “I think they just need to be consciously addressed.”

The county will need to have a reliable system to transport pretrial detainees to court, Sweeney said. He hopes moving the jail offsite doesn’t lead to having detainees appear at their hearings by video. 

“The ability to consult in person with your lawyer is critical, and you really can’t anticipate what is going to come up,” he said. “And so having the client there is absolutely essential. And plus, it changes the nature of the proceeding to have all the other participants in person and have the client on a video screen.”

Having a jail away from the courts will also require public defenders to plan visitations and spend more time traveling to and from the jail. Currently, public defenders and other lawyers often schedule visits with clients in between court proceedings because the jail is in the same building. 

Even under the same roof, lawyers often have to wait a while to meet with clients because the jail is short-staffed, Sweeney said. 

If a new jail includes a more effective visitation process, that would be a positive outcome, he said. 

Sweeney also shared opponents’ fear that a jail with larger capacity will lead to judges sending more people to it. 

“The reality is, you don’t tend to see a severely underutilized jail,” Sweeney said. “The concern is that you will continue to put people there.” 

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Criminal Justice Reporter (she/her)
Stephanie, who covered criminal justice and breaking news at the Chicago Tribune, is a bilingual journalist with a passion for storytelling that is inclusive and reflects the diversity of the communities she covers. She has been a reporter and copy editor for local newspapers in South Dakota, Kansas and Arizona. Stephanie is also a Maynard 200 alumni, a Maynard Institute for Journalism Education training program for journalists of color that focuses on making newsrooms more equitable, diverse and anti-racist.