Cecil Fluker, 40, has been in and out of jail since he was a teenager, and each time he has been grateful to get out alive.
Especially after his stint in 2017. “I felt like my life was in danger,” Fluker said of his time in a Cleveland jail in October of that year. Conditions were so poor, he said, he became ill from drinking tainted water.
Others have not been so lucky.
Six inmates died in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, correctional facilities between June and October of this year, three from accidental overdose and three by suicide. The deaths led to an investigation by the US Marshals Service that revealed inhumane conditions in the county’s jails, from severe overcrowding to “insufficient and unclear answers” about the recent inmate deaths.
Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, has three correctional centers approved to house 1,765 inmates but which – according to the marshals’ report released last month – house 2,420.
The report describes pregnant women sleeping on the floor, mice and vermin in food service areas and a system called the “red zone” where detainees are kept in their cells for 27 or more hours without access to toothbrushes or toilet paper. The marshals’ review of log books found that the “red zone” was in effect for one housing unit for 12 days in a row.
The jails are also short-staffed, with 96 vacant correctional officer positions at the time of the report, issued at the end of November.
According to the lawsuit he later filed, Fluker was arrested for violating a protective order in October 2017. Upon his release, he filed a lawsuit in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court alleging negligent and reckless conduct by jail administrators after Fluker became ill from drinking that “tainted” water.
Fluker also recounted seeing mice in his food and being denied immediate medical attention. His attorney, David Malik, said the lawsuit has been voluntarily dismissed, but said he plans to refile it in federal court next week.
At a meeting of the Cuyahoga County Council last week, Fluker and 22 others faced administrators to ask for answers and share their stories. County executive Armond Budish, who commissioned the marshals’ report, told attendees his office takes the report’s findings very seriously. “I want you to know that I understand how painful this is for our community,” he said.
Budish said some issues have already been remedied; juveniles have been separated from adult inmates and withholding food is no longer being used as a punishment. Sheriff Clifford Pinkney, whom Budish appointed in 2015, oversees the county jails, but did not respond to request for comment. The US Marshals Service also declined to comment.
Cleveland.com published an article shortly after the marshals’ report came out emphasizing the role of recent jail consolidation in the facilities’ struggles. “Last fall, Budish proposed the regionalization plan as a way to help close a gap in the budget,” Cleveland.com reported. “During all of the selling and planning for consolidation, conditions were getting worse in the downtown jail, as the marshal’s investigation ultimately showed.”
A spokeswoman for Budish declined to comment on Cleveland.com’s reporting. Budish himself was not available to speak with CNN.
After the sixth inmate died in early October, municipal judge Michael Nelson stopped sending “all but the worst” offenders to jail. After reviewing the marshals’ report, he told CNN he thinks judges may have to “start taking more drastic action,” such as releasing nonviolent offenders.
Nelson said he has issued personal bonds – which secure immediate release for people as long as they promise to appear in court – to detainees who weren’t released until several days later. “It’s heartbreaking,” he said, though he expressed hope that community activism would be able to affect change.
And what community activists, including some who spoke at the county council meeting, are pushing for is bail reform. Danielle Sydnor, an executive committee member of the Cleveland NAACP, said bail reform would keep low-level offenders out of jails in the first place and ease overcrowding. She said she has heard less from the county about long-term problem-solving than about addressing the jails’ immediate issues. “We should be able to do both,” Sydnor said.
In Budish’s remarks to the council, he said his office is working with judges and prosecutors on bail reform, though he did not provide specifics. He said a community panel is in the works as well to address public concerns.
The concerns include those of Jacqueline Jackson, whose nephew, Robert Sharp, died in a Cuyahoga correctional facility in 2015. Jackson also attended the county council meeting Tuesday and told administrators that Sharp overdosed and was put in solitary confinement, where he died, instead of being taken to the hospital.
The medical examiner’s report confirms Sharp’s cause of death as accidental overdose. “I’ve always wanted to speak out about it. I just didn’t have the opportunity,” Jackson told CNN, adding that her family continues to have many unanswered questions about the circumstances of Sharp’s death. She said her nephew was 36 when he died and left five children behind.
In response to the marshals’ report, Cleveland-area law firm Friedman and Gilbert is in the early stages of pursuing a class-action lawsuit, according to attorney Terry Gilbert. He said the firm has spoken to “at least a couple dozen” inmates at this point. The suit could be filed as early as next week.
Fluker, meanwhile, says he hopes the county tears down its aging facilities and starts fresh. Mostly, he said, he hopes no one else dies there. “I’m not saying it should be a hotel or a party, but damn, can we come out alive?”