Thinking about a life of crime? Don't get caught in East Cleveland

Jailhouse Blues 

Thinking about a life of crime? Don't get caught in East Cleveland

Gerald Strothers' bad week kicked off when the SWAT team clipped the dog.

It was early evening in November, and Strothers was already in bed after riding out a long day at the Internal Revenue Service office downtown, where he translates tax code Chinese into plain English for regular folks.

He wanted peace and quiet, and he was in the right place: The three-story building Strothers calls home was one of few shedding light on Northfield Avenue, a strip of mostly boarded-up houses in East Cleveland. Usually, the street is so desolate you could hear the echoing footsteps of anyone approaching.

But the quiet didn't last. At around 8 p.m., Strothers' slumber was cut apart by the rat-tat-tat of automatic weapon fire. By the time he popped his eyes open, a SWAT officer was at his bedside with gun drawn. They were looking for drugs, and they shot another resident's Rottweiler in the process.

Strothers was rounded up as part of the raid. A 53-year-old with no prior record, he claimed — and maintains today — that he had nothing to do with the PCP that was confiscated from the scene. But for Strothers, the worst was yet to come: a weeklong stint in the East Cleveland jail.

Like most of the city's infrastructure, East Cleveland's jail bleeds from years of neglect. It's a relic that dates to the years when Calvin Coolidge was holding down the Oval Office and hasn't been renovated since. Attached to the city hall and police station on Euclid Avenue, the brick building is a weatherbeaten sooty red, like the side of an old factory. According to eyewitness accounts and state documents, the curtains match the drapes, so to speak.

Strothers claims two prisoners were confined to each cramped cell, cold brick cubes illuminated only by the light that struggled in from a few fixtures in the hallway. The cells were overrun with mice and roaches, only two of them had running water, and only a few had functioning toilets. For the entire week, he wasn't allowed to make a phone call, shower, or brush his teeth. He and the others had to beg to be fed.

"You're basically in a third-world country there," he says.

He's not the only recent guest to cry foul. Eric Jones landed in the jail after a January traffic stop revealed that he was behind on child-support payments. Recently discharged from the Army, he was placed in a roach-infested cell that smelled of urine, he says. Even if his sink had worked, he was given no soap to use. Across from his cell, a broken window piped in a steady current of January-chilled air. His request to switch cells was ignored.

"I didn't spit on the officers, I didn't resist arrest, I have no felonies," Jones says.

East Cleveland Police dispute the claims of Strothers and Jones. According to Commander James Ruth, every individual in custody is properly booked and given a phone call and the opportunity to shower. Exterminators visit regularly, and the broken window is in line to be repaired. If there had been broken fixtures, he adds, they would have been promptly fixed.

"If there's something wrong with the toilet or sink, there's no way we're not going to fix it," he says. "We're doing what we can to fix any problems we can."

Ruth declined Scene's request to see the jail. But he and other city officials acknowledge there are longstanding problems that are addressed whenever possible. When it comes to handing out money in a city vice-gripped by years of foreclosure, crime, and poor leadership, suspected criminals tend to get the short straw.

In August 2008, a routine inspection by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction found that the jail failed to meet 12 of the state's 14 minimum standards, according to a report obtained by Scene. Among the areas cited as needing "immediate action" were new approaches to "jail booking and release functions," more adequate cell space, a dayroom for prisoners, increased lighting, and working toilets and hot showers.

According to Joel Commins, an ODRC inspector responsible for East Cleveland's jail, the state met with city officials in 2008 to discuss the conditions. "After that meeting, it's on the local facility to fix those issues," he says.

A follow-up study last summer took a closer look at the jail's shortcomings. Among other things, the report notes that the state mandates a minimum of 50 square feet for every prisoner; East Cleveland places two prisoners in a space that's 36 to 42 square feet in size.

"They're still working on a majority of those issues," says Commins. "The physical things that aren't corrected, they're correcting them in process. It's a money issue with them."

Money woes are old news in East Cleveland. According to an ODRC study, the jail received an $84,914 budget in 2008 — a figure that included the salary of two full-time corrections officers and one jail administrator. By comparison, the cities of Shaker Heights and Lakewood dished out $450,000 and $442,580 for their jails, respectively.

But compared to those suburbs' trickle of trouble, East Cleveland contends with a roaring Mississippi. According to the report, East Cleveland booked 12,213 people in 2008 — the equivalent of arresting almost half the city's population. Shaker Heights and Lakewood booked 1,269 and 2,480, respectively, in the same span.

Since his arrest, Gerald Strothers has been megaphoning his jail gripes at city council meetings and requesting public records — everything from exterminator receipts to phone logs — that would support the city's claims that they're trying to clean up the place. Thus far it's been slow to come, so Strothers has asked a judge to intervene.

East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton Jr. says he takes the allegations seriously. He is well aware of the state reports, and says the city is doing what it can.

"We could make a lot of improvements to a lot of things, if that's the way we choose to use available resources," he says. "The jail is one of those things, and if I had an extra dollar, I would do something with the jail. But we've got other things to be concerned about."

And then, after a deep breath, Norton unravels a litany of problems that tax his waking hours.

"We've got roads and streets that need repairs, we've got the need for police officers. We've got the need for resident security, we've got the need for business safety, we've got the need to plow snow, we've got the need to fix street lights, we've got the need to put up stop signs, we have buildings that need to be cleaned, houses to be inspected, kids need a rec center, we have to have older adult activities.

"We've also got a jail."

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