Corrections Officers Talk About Life Inside the County Jail Before and After a Year of Scathing Headlines

The news felt like it arrived abruptly and never slowed down. An inmate had died in the Cuyahoga County Jail. Then another. Then another. By the end of 2018, eight had died. County executive Armond Budish was ostensibly taken aback. How could this be happening? And so the U.S. Marshals were summoned to investigate the facility.

Their ensuing report was scathing, and touched not just on the deaths but on the entire operation. Dangerous, unconstitutional, inhumane. Those were the words used to describe a jail that was overcrowded and understaffed, where basic human needs and medical services were being ignored. Cuyahoga County council rushed into action. Budish promised and continues to promise changes. Unthinkable headlines like, "County says Constitutional rights re-established for inmates," are now welcomed as good news, and updates like, "All pregnant inmates are now assigned a bunk," are passed along, sad reminders that the opposite was true in recent history. Ken Mills, the former jail director, was indicted for lying by the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's office. The county's IG released a report detailing homophobic and anti-Semitic comments he made during his tenure. Warden Eric Ivey was demoted on Monday.

We had no idea, the county proclaimed. Of course, they did. Union grievances dating back years mirror the findings of the Marshals' report and yet were greeted by deaf ears and inaction until eight people died.

You've heard from Budish, and from former jail director Ken Mills, and from council and from lawyers representing inmates in a pending civil rights lawsuit. Who you haven't heard from yet is the corrections officers themselves, of which there are about 580 currently on staff. About how it felt to be ignored for so long and then vindicated, in a strange, sad way. About how changes are good, but the proposed ones don't go far enough. About the lingering issues with leadership. About how it feels to be the one to find someone who has hung themself. About what life is like in a facility where the starting pay ($15.31 an hour) is the lowest among Ohio's largest counties (Franklin County, incidentally: $24.17 an hour) and what that means for recruitment and retention.

Scene spoke to two corrections officers who talked on the condition of anonymity, both because they were not authorized to speak publicly and because they feared retaliation, about those and other topics. It's a fascinating, albeit tiny, glimpse into what it's like behind the walls and why there's reticence to believe real cultural change is coming.

The interviews, conducted separately, have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What's the mood and morale and atmosphere like now, in the wake of everything that's come out in the past year and with all the promises to fix it?

CO1: Well, the atmosphere is still hostile. The officers are short-staffed, they're "force hit." That means that on every shift, the department has to force anywhere from 20 to 30 officers to fill vacant posts in the jail. That burns out new and veteran officers, because if they don't, they face discipline, harassment or retaliation. The department is so short staffed that many of the officers who inform management they are sick or officers that have documented illnesses are bullied and intimidated. The department's need to fill these vacant posts far outweighs the well-being of the officer, it seems. Even officers who have FMLA are looked down upon for not being able to work, and that's used against them going forward on the job. There is constant burnout.

CO2: Tensions are flaring. I would say jail leadership and the administration, what they care about is keeping their jobs. A lot of what they've talked about lately has no meat or merit, but the headlines make it seem like they do. It's the same old county jail. The Marshals came in and in three days totally destroyed the department, and they left, and nothing much has changed. They had a huge team and in just three days looked at every aspect of the department, and their report showed horrendous conditions.

Now, if you look at all the grievances brought by the union over the years, the report is an accurate reflection of those concerns. If the leadership and the administration would have listened ... but they ignored it. It never had to get this bad. It's like a bacteria. You ignore it and it keeps growing and getting worse. The same grievances over and over again. And then the deaths started happening. If they would have just listened, maybe all of them don't happen. And then you have Gary Brack, who was a great nursing director, and you fire him for speaking up? You claim to have a whistleblower policy and you blast that guy? Of course, right after they fired him, that's when the deaths started happening.

You know, I've never seen Armond Budish in the building. This guy's a county leader, and I've never seen him in the jail. You're running a business, and you're getting called to the carpet, wouldn't you say, "I'm going to go over there. I want full access. I want to see for myself what's going on. I want to know the truth."

Generally, staffing is a major concern?

CO2: Yes. And forced overtime is still an issue. Now, you have people with 30 years on the job getting forced overtime every week. You're burning everyone out. You expect a corrections officer who's working 16 hours a day to come right back and be effective in their duties while trying to do everything under the sun? When you're not getting lunch until 4 p.m. and you've been there since 5:45 a.m.? When you're not just double podding but quadruple podding? Stress is a killer. Even when we're in lockdown, it's not all locked down. There's laundry cart, med cart and multiple other duties that come up. So an officer can be away from a pod for 30 to 60 minutes at a time. You're supposed to do a round every 15 minutes, but they know that's not possible.

There's also a serious issue with turnover. To do the job well, you have to know how to treat the inmates individually. You have to get to know their quirks, their personality. It's the human nature aspect of the job. But when you have a high turnover rate, they don't know who's who or what they're like, or if someone is acting a little weird and are they okay? That's Direct Supervision 101. You get to know the inmates. Well, inmate Jackson is acting out of the ordinary, and I know that because I've been in this pod for six months. Is he depressed? What does he need? But now, with turnover, and constantly red-zoning and quadruple podding, all that goes out the window, especially if you're working a 16-hour day.

CO1: What people don't understand is, that when you have veterans, they respect the inmate for being a person. You're not judge and jury, you're not there to inflict any punishment. We uphold the law. We make sure the inmate is afforded everything they need. We make sure things are done. The director should have a heart not just for the inmates but the officers he's working with. Mills didn't want to know his people. He was standoffish. He looked down on the personnel. He said something to the effect of a monkey could do our jobs. That's hurtful. That's spiteful. Even before the deaths happened, there were officers telling him that things are going to happen and it was going to be on his hands. He blew it.

What was it like under Ken Mills?

CO1: The worst. Everyone really disliked him. I think some officers wanted to go over to the courthouse for his appearance and be in uniform and turn around when he entered court, but they didn't. No one liked him. He was afraid of the jail. He was afraid to go into the housing units by himself. If he did, he went with several staff members to protect him. Many officers disliked Mills because he never listened to their concerns. For him, he viewed those concerns as complaining, and he refused many times to take their safety concerns seriously.

But the county wanted so badly to be the regional jail and they kept biting off more without thinking about housing and staffing and conditions.

I will say, you have a place with the county jail where officers do their job and do the best with what they have. For many reasons, they've had to deal with being told to do more with less, with being underpaid and overworked, with being stressed, but no one had taken the time to pay attention.

There have been, as we've seen, some stories about officers who have done some really bad stuff. How do you square that with the county's job of disciplining and making sure the staff has integrity? And what role does training and hiring play in making sure officers, especially the ones on the Special Response Team, are in the best position to do their jobs?

CO2: If you look, we're one of the biggest shops in town, and the county treated us more like a cash cow than a corrections center. What are you supposed to do when someone can come in and be a county cook, a civilian employee, and your starting pay rate is higher than a corrections officer? Why the fuck would you take that job? We're also one of the lowest paying shops around. You have people here that go to lunch and never come back. You have to also remember we're one of the oldest shops around that still does direct supervision. A lot of these jails now do indirect supervision, where the officer is not sitting there alone, but in a controlled, separated area, which is less stressful. So, sure, maybe if I'm looking for a job I'll go to Mahoning where they have indirect supervision instead of here.

It used to take you two years on the job before you could even put in an application to be on SRT. You had to learn the meat and potatoes of the housing units first, to build communication skills and hone your sense. Now you're throwing officers in top-level positions and their experience is what they see on T.V. But they're training these guys for a week and throwing them in the job. Some of these guys have less than six months on the job, and now they're a tactical responder, the most scrutinized job we have? And you expect these guys to run around to incidents of combativeness, of suicide attempts, stuff they have never seen in their work life before? SRT is a needed position for the job but the way it's implemented is failing.

CO1: Here's the problem: They have a couple of policies they made up under Mills, and most of the officers, our training is what we go by. When Mills, who had no experience in corrections or law enforcement, came to our department, he replaced the guideline for use of force, which at the time was called the use of force continuum. The new policy was weak; it had no real direction or indication of how an officer should defend themself. The use of force continuum spelled out in clear English what was expected or allowed as far as proper defense goes. But Mills removed that policy and practice and replaced it with the words "as much force as needed," which opened the door to officers not knowing how to handle certain altercations. The new policy allowed the department to blame the officer for using force that they felt was excessive without giving the officer a true defined way to handle the situation.

And you have brand-new people all the time, and they're put in these high positions, officers fresh out of class, that they put on the tactical team or in booking. They haven't worked in a pod yet, but you're putting them into your key areas?

Those pods — a housing unit, which consists of about 28 people up to 80, sometimes 100 — are under direct supervision. You have to see how they operate before you can really do the other jobs. You have to know how to respond to an inmate, how to de-escalate a situation. If you're afraid, if you've never done that job, how are you learning? Some SRT members have had training with SWAT teams and other stuff, but there are also younger officers who don't have that experience. Old officers, ones that know right from wrong and maybe speak up, Mills would just replace them with another officer. And when you're a younger officer, you're not going to speak up.

Is that indicative of a culture that is based on fear and retaliation?

CO1: There's a big-time culture of retaliation. If you speak up, they make sure you're never promoted. They pick on you. They find every way for every supervisor to write you up. People have families and children. They're afraid to jeopardize that by speaking up. The county talks about ethics training, but the ethics are really bad.

CO2: Look at the great example of Gary Brack. Corrections officers loved him. Nurses loved him. He was a leader, which is different than being a boss. He put the burden of stress on himself, and he went to council and he spoke and he thought he was going to be protected. If they were short staffed, he had no shame in doing the low-level jobs of his nurses. If they needed someone to do med cart, he was on med cart. If they were short in the dispensary, he was there. If you look at our leaders, they sit at their desks, they watch their employees on camera. When we're short, they don't help or assist.

How does the staff deal with a death, let alone eight deaths?

CO1: You have to imagine how awful it is to find someone hanging, or trying to kill themselves, or in a medical situation. When an inmate dies on your watch, it hurts. The officers are concerned with the lives of the inmates. It's not a war between the two sides.

How do you expect an officer, who is doing the job of four officers, how do you point your finger at that officer if something happens like that? That officer is running back and forth to make sure everyone's needs are being taken care of — the food, the psych, the med carts. The higher-ups think the jail goes to sleep at night. That's a foolish way of thinking. We have inmates in jail because they've broken the law. Some of them are going to continue to break the law, no matter whether it's day or night.

CO2: There are high divorce rates, PTSD. Imagine what we're seeing in here. Imagine being the person who finds an inmate who has died. Imagine being an officer who finds an inmate who has hung themselves and is told to get right back to work, because that happened. Excuse me? That's a traumatic incident, you have to get them out of there. That's a horrible experience you'll have for a lifetime. I've seen lots of heinous things in there. We're all human. The public can forget that. I see a lot of, "Well you signed up for this." Well, a cop doesn't sign up to get shot or shoot someone. The risks are there. But you expect the department to be proactive, not reactive, to take your concerns legitimately. ... Now the tray issue, it was an issue numerous times in grievances, about them smelling like feces and being moldy. They blew it off. The Marshals come in and say the trays are moldy. They're starting to address it, but the public needs to understand officers have been trying to address issues like that for years and the county leadership ignored them. But I'm expected to hand a moldy tray that smells like shit to an inmate and they think everything's going to be okay? No. That leads to tension and violence and a disconnect between the officers and the inmates.

For us officers, we punch in and punch out and do our jobs, and yet we get the brunt of it. We don't make the decisions; we have to deal with the department's failures daily.

Is there hope with council's decision to fund the hiring of new officers some of this will be alleviated?

CO1: Council has it right. They're the only ones through this that have stood up for officers. They've been blinded by a whole lot, because when you have supervisors, you expect the supervisors to have knowledge of the jail and tell you the truth. Everyone's excited about getting those new officers and getting them trained right.

CO2: The nursing situation when Gary Brack spoke, it was mission critical. Now, we need 60 new officers, but the pay rate is still shit. We're getting blasted in the media, the Marshals are calling the place unconstitutional, and hey, the Cuyahoga County jail is hiring? Let me get my ass down there and apply. Yeah, right.

Do you put any stock in some of the recent announcements, like Budish's "plan" for mental health facilities?

CO2: With his zero timetable and zero funding? He's been researching this for a year, he said? Let's be real, there's no plan. It's all fluff and positive PR. We know the truth, about all the corrections officers that filed grievances not just on behalf of themselves but on behalf of the inmates — because if they're not getting what they need, we can't do our jobs, that's when tensions flair — and the incompetent leadership in the county who ignored them.

Budish did note that the jail population has gone down in recent weeks and it's not as overcrowded as it once was.

CO2: I'll give him that. Population is down. But that doesn't equate to jail administration or to the county. That equates to judges finally clearing out their court dockets and doing their jobs.

But the county has yet to address the pay rate, which is among the lowest in Ohio. How do you attract good candidates at that point?

CO1: That's a big issue. Officers can look at whatever job is offering $15 and some change, and we're offering the same, but we're doing law enforcement work, and over there they're putting products in boxes. That's a huge factor in attracting better candidates. People are walking away from the job because the pay is so low. And the ones that are here, you really can't defend yourself because then some higher up is going to look at some video footage that doesn't tell the whole story, doesn't capture the audio, doesn't show the whole incident. Sometimes inmates provoke a fight with an officer and then want to turn around and sue the department for that officer defending themselves in the altercation.

Were the Marshals welcomed? There was one story about an officer calling one inmate a snitch who talked to the investigators.

CO1: That's very, very isolated. Everyone wanted to talk to them, and it's a shame not everyone got a chance. When the Feds came in, it solidified the concerns of the officers that have been shared for years. Everyone in leadership who said they didn't know what was going on is lying. Or they didn't care or want to know. When you have one death in the jail, you would think leadership and the county administration would high-tail it over to find out what's going on. That never happened. Management needs to have management training.

How much does mental health play a day-to-day issue for the officers?

CO1: It plays a great big role for the officers and inmates. When you spend the majority of your life inside a jail with inmates, 12 hours at a time, when you're sitting there, with deaths, that's a lot. Officers become social workers, ministers. It wears on your life, the constant aspect of fear, because you do have some bad people in jail, and some of the worst of the worst are in county jail. You hear, "I'm gonna kill you," or, "I'm gonna rape your kids," on a regular basis.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how much has changed or improved since the report came out?

CO2: Okay, well, here are the things they've done. The jail is less overcrowded, but it's still overcrowded. Now people aren't sleeping on floors. Great. Juveniles: Now we're feeding them double portions. Absolutely. Did they move them to another housing unit where they're not in sight or sound of the adult inmates? Yes. But there are only about a dozen juveniles. What's changed for the other 1,900? We're still double podding. We're still quadruple podding. We're still leaving inmates locked up. Can I use the phone? No, we're red-zoned. Can I shower? No, we're red-zoned. What's really changed for the stress and tension? Nada. They're still lashing out because they're locked up all day. In the past month, two nurses got assaulted. One of the things Brack talked about was the lack of security for the nursing staff, for the medical people. Well, we had a medical nurse get choked out by some inmate who said he wanted to kill her — he said that. But there are civilians having meetings in hallways with inmates with no CO presence. We used to have an escort for any civilian that was in the facility. But with the lack of staffing, we can't do that now.

Also, a lot of these new nurses are just agency nurses, so they're here for a day to help and then gone. You must take care of your people. Be proactive and not reactive.

What needs to change in order to make real progress?

CO2: At the end of the day, you look at county leadership, and what needs to be changed is that. Listen to the people who work in the job. The people behind the walls, doing the job daily. We are doing the best we can in there and I want you all to know that. We do not make the decisions. Leadership and the administration must hold themselves accountable.

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About The Author

Vince Grzegorek

Vince Grzegorek has been with Scene since 2007 and editor-in-chief since 2012. He previously worked at Discount Drug Mart and Texas Roadhouse.
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