The two buildings of the Cuyahoga County Jail rise above W. St. Clair Street and West Third in downtown Cleveland.
The Cuyahoga County jail is split across two buildings in the Justice Center in downtown Cleveland. Credit: Nick Castele / Signal Cleveland

The Cuyahoga County jail is now Chris Ronayne’s problem to solve. 

Three years of talks about the future of the jail and Justice Center collapsed last month, widening a rift between county officials and court leaders. The newly elected executive now has the job of restarting deliberations on whether to renovate or rebuild the jail and courts complex, much of which dates to 1976.

Ronayne told Signal Cleveland last week that he wants to lay a fresh set of eyes on the condition of the Justice Center. He said that there is an argument for keeping the jail and the courthouse together on a single site rather than separating them.

“I want to know very specifically whether we can or cannot continue to utilize the building in the long haul, and, if not, why not,” he said. “I actually think the burden of proof is on those who are saying we can’t.” 

Ronayne, a Democrat, said he also wants to “audit” the Cuyahoga County justice system to see whether the jail population could be brought down – for instance, by making better use of the county’s new diversion center. “Who’s Really Cycling In and Out of Cleveland’s Courts?” by our partners at The Marshall Project shows most repeat defendants commit nonviolent crimes borne out of untreated addiction and mental illness.

Chris Ronayne and his family celebrate his election as Cuyahoga County executive.
Chris Ronayne and his family celebrate his election as Cuyahoga County executive. Credit: Nick Castele / Signal Cleveland

As for the steering committee of Cleveland, county and court officials that has guided the decision-making process so far, Ronayne said that resurrecting it is perhaps not the way to go.

The deaths of two more people in the jail this month underscored the urgency of the issue.

The current county executive, Armond Budish, had pushed to build a new jail on the site of a former Standard Oil refinery. Cost estimates rose to $750 million – a bill Budish proposed to pay by extending the life of a portion of the county’s sales tax.

Activists packed meetings to oppose the plan. The prosecutor threatened to sue to stop the land purchase, and he and other court officials hired an outside law firm. Ronayne himself weighed in against Budish’s plan. 

Last month, the steering committee rejected the former refinery site. After that, Budish and County Council President Pernel Jones Jr. quit the steering committee. They issued a letter accusing the prosecutor, public defender and top Common Pleas judge of dragging out the decision on the jail – delays that Budish and Jones said would only drive costs up.   

Budish and Jones also wrote that court leaders “hold the key” to cutting the jail population. If the courts move cases to trial more quickly, the number of people in jail will come down – and so will the cost of a new jail, Budish and Jones wrote. 

We need a new jail. That’s the bottom line, and I believe everybody agrees on that.

Outgoing Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish

Judge Brendan Sheehan, the administrative judge of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, issued a statement in response saying he would “not waste time responding to finger-pointing” over the jail.

“This letter makes sweeping accusations and dismisses legitimate cost concerns and possible long-term health hazards over the push to build a new jail on an environmentally contaminated site,” Sheehan wrote. “As a court, we stand ready to work with the next County Executive on a jail project that best serves our taxpayers, the community, and the justice system we are charged with helping oversee.”

Letter aside, Budish’s part in the jail debate has come to an end, even though he still has a month and a half left in office. 

“I don’t think I’ll have a role at this point. I tried,” Budish told Signal Cleveland in the weeks before Election Day. “We need a new jail. That’s the bottom line, and I believe everybody agrees on that.” 

The other players – the judges, the prosecutor, the public defender, county council, activists – are still involved. Along with Ronayne, they’ll be wrestling with the questions that have dominated the jail conversation for years. 

Jones summarized those questions this way: “Where, what and how much?”

If the county does build a new jail, where should it go? What sort of building should it be? And how much will it cost? To those three questions, Jones added a fourth: How will the county pay for it?

What to build, and how big?

There are two jail buildings at the Justice Center complex in Downtown Cleveland. One was built 46 years ago along with the main courts tower. The county built the other jail high-rise in 1994. 

Officially, the jail can hold  1,765 to 1,880 inmates. But in 2018 – the year of a string of jail deaths and a damning U.S. Marshals’ Service report – more than 2,400 people were packed into the downtown facility. 

“It’s one of the worst jails I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been doing this for 40 years,” Karen Chinn, a corrections consultant who advised the steering committee and visited the jail in 2019, told Signal Cleveland. “It’s old, it’s decrepit, it’s filthy.”

According to Chinn, it’s time for the county to build a new jail, and she noted that delays will increase the cost. But if county leaders work together to reduce the population, a smaller jail is possible, she said.

“There is no doubt in my mind that if there was the political and group will – and this is a system, nobody can say it and make it happen, everyone’s got to work together – Cuyahoga County could have a smaller jail,” she said. 

A steering committee of court, city and county leaders formed in 2019 to chart the future of the jail and courts complex. The following year, the committee unanimously recommended building a new jail on a new site. 

Budish told Signal Cleveland that while the county has tried to improve jail conditions, some fixes require a new building – one with natural light and a horizontal, rather than vertical, layout.

“There are things that can’t be remedied, things like having natural sunlight. You can’t drill holes in a jail,” he said. “It’s a dangerous place because, for one reason, you transport prisoners by elevator in an up-and-down jail.”

The prosecutor and the courts paid for a study this year to examine whether the current jail is salvageable. DLZ, the consulting firm, concluded that it was possible to renovate Jails I and II – but that it wasn’t practical, given the scope of the overhaul. To comply with state standards, the county would likely have to reduce the building’s capacity.  

As long as the beds are there, you will have judges that are willing to fill it.

Kareem Henton, Cuyahoga County Jail Coalition

During the coronavirus pandemic, the courts and county dramatically slashed the jail population to less than 1,000. But those numbers have risen. As of Monday, 1,618 people were incarcerated in the jail, according to the county.

The steering committee planned for a jail that could house 1,600 inmates, with the ability to expand up to 2,400.

Activists with the Cuyahoga County Jail Coalition, which mounted the grassroots opposition to the project, don’t want the county to spend money on such a large facility. 

“As long as the beds are there, you will have judges that are willing to fill it,” Kareem Henton, a member of the coalition who also works for the Bail Project, told Signal Cleveland. 

Henton said he expects the county eventually will build a new jail. Given that reality, he wants it smaller.

Evan O’Reilly, another activist with the jail coalition, said the county should reconsider renovating the current building and moving court cases through the system more quickly. 

O’Reilly said a jail alone won’t fix gaps in social services – like underfunded homeless shelters and the cost of healthcare – that help people who often circulate through the criminal justice system. 

“If they think that building a bigger jail is going to address any of that, then they’re wrong,” he said. 

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O'Malley speaks at the Oct. 4 meeting of the Justice Center Executive Steering Committee.
Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley speaks at the Oct. 4 meeting of the Justice Center Executive Steering Committee. Credit: Cuyahoga County

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley has suggested renovating Jail II, the newer of the two jail towers, while building a second jail somewhere else. He said it might make more fiscal sense to fix up what the county has rather than building entirely new. 

But splitting the jail between two unconnected sites isn’t efficient, said Andy Cupples, one of the consultants who worked with the steering committee. For one thing, the county would have to double up on services, he said. 

“Now you have two medical areas, two kitchens, two central control rooms,” he said. “You’re duplicating everything.” 

If not there, where?

The county’s preferred site for the jail was on Transport Road, nestled between the Cuyahoga River and Broadway Avenue. For a century, until 1966, an oil refinery operated there. Asphalt production continued there until 1981. 

In the early 1980s, Ohio officials opted not to build a prison there because of the site’s environmental contamination and the cost of cleanup, the Plain Dealer reported at the time. The Michigan-based trucking company that now owns the land has been working under an agreement with the Ohio EPA meant to return brownfields to safe and productive use. 

The consulting firm Partners Environmental produced a report for the county on what risks the site could pose today. That report identified methane, a combustible gas, and benzene, a carcinogen, as potential hazards. 

Partners Environmental wrote that the county could guard against benzene and methane vapors leaching from the soil. The county would have to keep 2 feet of clean soil on the site and lay plastic barriers beneath jail buildings. The county would also need to install a system to vent the vapors above the jail – common precautions taken in other projects on former industrial land, a Partners vice president told council in September.

An aerial view of the Transport Road site that the Budish administration proposed buying for the new Cuyahoga County Jail. The image was included in an appraisal prepared for the county. | Credit: Cuyahoga County, Principle Realty Group

O’Malley and Chief Public Defender Cullen Sweeney, who both opposed buying the property, argued that the site’s contaminated history still could expose the county to lawsuits from employees or inmates who get sick  in the future – whether or not those claims would win in court. 

Defenders of building at Transport Road consider the environmental fears overblown. 

“The fact is that sites can be remediated,” Budish said. “This is not uncommon. And when you’re dealing with an urban setting, there’s toxins in the ground. That’s just the way it is. If it’s a greenfield, that’s different, but the committee did not want to go outside the City of Cleveland.” 

But building a jail on industrial land isn’t the same as building a residential development there, Sweeney said. 

“Most of the time, people get to choose if they want to live somewhere that was redeveloped from a brownfield site,” he said. “People that are arrested and held in pretrial detention for crimes that they’re just accused of don’t have that choice.” 

County officials landed on the Transport Road site after whittling down a list of more than two dozen possibilities, they told council in September. 

I think there’s a general consensus that it should be in Cleveland…For attorneys visiting their clients, for families visiting their loved ones, for people being released from jail, having it be in a central hub-type area is critical.

Chief Public Defender Cullen Sweeney on the location of the county jail

Some sites were too close to homes, they said. Two successive Cleveland mayoral administrations nixed a site off of East 55th Street between Cedar and Central Avenues. City Council members opposed using a different site in the Industrial Valley. Another possibility, in Garfield Heights, was outside the City of Cleveland. 

Not all tracts of land are equal. A suburban greenfield may be enticingly free from environmental problems. But building in the suburbs would also mean moving jail employees and their income- tax withholdings outside of Cleveland. 

And do lawyers and relatives of the incarcerated – some of whom  don’t own cars – want to rack up highway miles traveling to a new, suburban jail? For Sweeney, the answer is no.

“I think there’s a general consensus that it should be in Cleveland,” Sweeney said. “For attorneys visiting their clients, for families visiting their loved ones, for people being released from jail, having it be in a central hub-type area is critical.” 

O’Malley maintains that there are other sites to consider, especially if the county looks for 20-acre sites rather than the 30- to 40-acre ones that dominated the initial search. 

He has sought help from Gus Frangos, who heads the Cuyahoga Land Bank. Frangos emailed him examples of large, vacant swathes of land that could be candidates for the new jail, the prosecutor said. 

“We just had enough parcels put together that they blew 490 all the way to Cleveland Clinic,” O’Malley said, referring to the Opportunity Corridor road project. If enough land could be assembled for a new road, his reasoning went, why not for a new jail? 

And if it takes more time to find that site, O’Malley said, he is OK with that. 

“My hope is that when we do it, we do it right,” he said. “So if that takes another year, it takes another year.” 

Government Reporter (he/him)
Nick joins us from the world of public radio. He has more than a decade experience covering politics and government in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. In 2021, he produced and hosted "After Jackson: Cleveland's Next Mayor," an Ideastream Public Media podcast on the Cleveland mayoral race. He has also covered breaking news, opioid lawsuits and elections nationally for NPR.