Where to build a new county jail has been a years-long question for Cuyahoga County leaders. On Sept. 26, Cuyahoga County Council members voted to approve the purchase of about 72 acres in Garfield Heights. The county can spend roughly $38.7 million to buy the land. Eight council members voted in favor of the purchase. Yvonne Conwell, Sunny Simon and Cheryl Stephens voted against it.
Documenter Marian Bryant asked, “Where will the county get the money for this jail project?” That is a concern of some council members, too. The land purchase will be funded by the Justice Center Capital Projects Fund, which has more than $53 million of federal stimulus money that council allocated in December 2022. The cost of constructing a new jail campus — which could be north of $750 million — is another question.
Council Member Simon tried to make the purchase of land dependent on having funding to build the jail. Council voted against that proposal in August. County Executive Chris Ronayne wants to extend a .25% sales tax – set to expire in 2027 – for 40 years to help cover construction costs. Council is considering that legislation, though some members think residents should vote on it.
Public comments at meetings about a new jail have both supported building a new jail and also opposed proposed sites. Many have advocated against building a new jail altogether, often due to the cost. In this meeting, Kareem Henton, an activist with the Cuyahoga County Jail Coalition, said the Garfield Heights location poses transportation challenges for people who need to get to the downtown courthouse from the jail. He urged council to refurbish the existing jail instead.
Conditions at the current jail are driving the push for a new one. Many of the buildings date from the 1970s. The level of care for people incarcerated has been criticized in recent years following more than a dozen deaths. A U.S. Marshals report called conditions inhumane.
However, those poor conditions are signs of mismanagement and show the county should not spend money on a new jail, said Stephanie Thomas, a Cleveland resident and business owner. She recalled low-quality food and lack of medical attention during her incarceration.