Abuse and Death at Cuyahoga County’s Prisons

Our nation’s prisons are crowded with inmates; many prisons are far over their rated capacity. Overcrowding is one of the symptoms of deteriorating conditions in prisons throughout the country. Rampant sexual abuse committed by inmates against other inmates, physical and emotional abuse of prisoners by corrections facility staff and the spread of diseases have led to a staggering toll on America’s prison population. One of the most plagued prison systems is located in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, the county where Cleveland can be found. A string of inmate deaths has led the U.S. Marshals Service to investigate several facilities in the county prison system and has spurred reform initiatives across the country.

Cuyahoga County Corrections Center: a String of Inmate Deaths

At least nine prisoners have died in the Cuyahoga County Corrections Center, Ohio’s second-largest corrections facility with a daily population exceeding 2000 inmates. In 2018 alone, six prisoners died at the facility. Although a couple of these deaths were the result of suicide, unsafe conditions, substandard mental and physical healthcare, and overcrowding at the prison facility was implicated in all of those deaths.

2019 started off with a grim statistic; since the beginning of the year, three more inmates have died at the corrections facility. The situation has grown so dire that the U.S. Marshals Service investigated the facility beginning in 2018. As part of its Quality Assurance Review of the prison, the facility received an “Unsatisfactory/At-Risk” rating. Among its findings, the Marshals Service indicated that inmates were not being managed efficiently, food service was inadequate, and juvenile inmates were mixed in with adult inmates. Extensive interviews with inmates turned up further unsatisfactory conditions, with concerns about food, sanitation, and access to healthcare raised by about 80% of all inmates interviewed.

Abuses at the Hands of Corrections Officers

The deplorable living and safety conditions at Cuyahoga County’s corrections facilities are only part of the picture. In addition to the risk of deaths at these facilities, an investigation by a Cleveland-area TV station uncovered shocking abuses committed by corrections officials.

In three security videos released by WJAC, Cleveland’s NBC-affiliate station, corrections officers are shown striking prisoners, spraying them with pepper spray, or ignoring their needs. One inmate, Terrance Debose, was struck repeatedly in the head, resulting in a concussion. Corrections officer Nicholas Evans is shown in the video turning off his body camera before hitting and punching Debose.

Another video shows a female inmate strapped to a restraint chair. Corrections officer Robert Marsh then punches the inmate in the face before spraying pepper spray directly into her eyes. In both of these incidents, officers were indicted and charged with a variety of offenses, including:

  • Unlawful restraint
  • Interfering with civil rights
  • Tampering with evidence
  • Felonious assault

Finally, the third video shows inaction by officials that ultimately led to an inmate’s death. Inmate Joseph Arquillo was suffering from a drug overdose, and collapsed within the corrections facility. Corrections officials ignored Arquillo’s condition for approximately two hours before summoning a medical response team. Arquillo later died at an area hospital. Officials charged in the incident tampered with records, including falsifying control record logs.

Reforms on the Horizon?

In the ensuing months, administrators of Cuyahoga County’s corrections facilities met with journalists and county officials to discuss reforms put into place as a result of the deplorable conditions and poor safety records of the county’s prisons. Among the reforms implemented, the facilities are hiring more corrections officers, improving management of prisoners and prisoner services, and undertaking sweeping disinfection and sanitation of facility spaces to reduce the spread of disease. Time will tell if these reforms actually improve conditions at the county’s facilities or if they are simply being done to appease the public outcry about poor conditions in Cuyahoga County’s corrections facilities.

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