Getting to and from a new jail in Garfield Heights presents some roadblocks for inmates and for court operations, according to some county officials and advocates for those incarcerated.
These were among the concerns raised at the first public hearing on the proposal Monday afternoon, though such objections have been raised in the weeks since Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne first proposed building a new $750 million jail in the southeast suburb of Garfield Heights.
Currently, one bus route runs closest to the site, but county officials on Monday said the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority has agreed to shift that route and add a bus stop in a loop just inside the proposed jail campus.
A 35-minute bus ride
Right now, riding the bus from the Justice Center to the proposed site in Garfield Heights takes about 35 minutes. A Signal Cleveland reporter took the ride on an overcast day last month, walking to the site and back to the bus stop, which took about a five-minute each way.
The most direct RTA route to the Garfield Heights proposed jail site is Route 90, which runs every 30 minutes and can be accessed about a block from the Cleveland Justice Center downtown, which includes the jail and the courtrooms.
The bus gets on the interstate near Cuyahoga Community College’s downtown campus and exits at Transportation Boulevard. The bus stopped just after turning east onto Granger Road, about three blocks from the proposed site.
The intersection of Granger Road and Transportation Boulevard is busy, with a lot of semi-trucks passing through the area. Though bus rides require exact change or a prepaid card, there are no fare kiosks nearby.
Kareem Henton, an organizer with the jail coalition, told Signal Cleveland last month that bus transportation is critical for some people incarcerated. He said that if a bus line doesn’t run 24 hours, people released in the evening could have limited transportation options for returning home. Furthermore, he said bus access is important for those needing social services or who are required to attend court-ordered programs located near downtown Cleveland, such as those offered by the Oriana House on East 55th Street, which provides substance use and mental health services.
Complicating court proceedings
Others have raised concerns that having the jail in a suburb could slow court proceedings.
Michael Dever, director of the Cuyahoga County Department of Public Works, said the sheriff’s office estimates about 130 defendants are asked to be at the courthouse daily. By that count, they’ve planned to have three to four buses available for transport, said Dever, who was presenting the new jail proposal.
He also anticipated there would need to be a form of transportation ready for last-minute requests throughout the day. But he said the bulk of defendants would be transported early in the morning on the day of their appearance and driven back to the jail in the afternoon or evening.
At council’s public hearing Monday, Council Member Sunny Simon raised questions about what would happen if an inmate needed to be at the courthouse on short notice or gets stuck at the courthouse late into the evening. She asked whether they planned to remodel part of the existing jail to house detainees overnight.
Dever said while some renovations taking place at the existing jail include space to house detainees during the day, there is no intention of housing defendants overnight after a new jail is built.
He said they will have buses transport defendants in the morning to the courts – sometimes as early as 5:15 a.m. or whenever the early morning shift change happens.
“I’ll have holding cells up on the courtroom floors, but I will not have a housing facility at the facility,” Dever said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
“Right, yeah, none of this does,” Simon said before moving on to another line of critical questions, this time regarding the budget for the jail.
Cuyahoga County Public Defender Cullen Sweeney told Signal Cleveland last month that no matter where the new jail is located, it’s important that defendants be able to appear in court in person.
He doesn’t object to building a new jail away from the Justice Center but said the county needs to make sure officials have a plan for getting defendants to the courthouse efficiently.
“I assume they’re gonna probably transport people in the morning,” Sweeney said. “If you’re not on that list, you’re not on the bus, you’re probably not going to get there for that day. I think that would just kind of amplify some of those access challenges.”
The public hearing on Monday was the first of two meetings held to discuss Ronayne’s proposed 40-year sales tax extension to pay for a new jail and for a future courthouse project. But some council members said they doubt there will be funding left for a courthouse project.
Residents have asked the council to be fiscally conservative and think about what an extended sales tax means for future generations of taxpayers. The next public hearing is set for Tuesday, Aug. 1.
Building new Cuyahoga County jail in Garfield Heights could pose transportation issues for inmates, court operations
County Council members and advocates for those incarcerated worry moving jail from downtown could limit access to established services and create potential court delays.