Photo courtesy of Nicholas Kwok

Hell on earth is a jail in Ohio

In this edition of The Middle, how a county jail in Ohio is rated one of the worst prisons in the United States.

Most of the time I consider myself a movie buff.

In high school, I obsessed over filmmakers, writers, actors, why certain camera movement was used in a specific scene etc. etc. etc. Just normal things that a teenager in high school going through puberty would think about. I love movies so much, I acted in a college feature length film called Unlucky by Ksuif, where I portrayed a homeless man — it was my magnum opus.

However, there’s one film you can mention to me and I almost always draw a blank, hence why I say I only consider myself a movie buff most of the time. Written by Stephen King and staring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins; The Shawshank Redemption is a movie I’ve never honestly sat down and finished. I know the bones of the story, how its about two inmates trying to survive in a brutal prison system and a corrupt warden after Robbins’ character is sentenced there for two consecutive life sentences.

We watch them, like zoo animals, with amazement at how cruel the warden is to Robbins’ character. How he opts to escape the prison that has treated him so cruelly during his stay.

When the movie ends, it’s over and we can go back to our lives, trying make ends meet or chase our dreams. It’s the thought that stays with us after we change the channel to whatever else is on, the characters — the prisoners in that hell hole stay behind.

It’s escapism.

But there are real life Wardens like Shawshank’s villain, Samuel Norton.

Villains like disgraced warden Joe Arpaio who ran a jail nicknamed “Tent Town,” which used tents to house prison overflow in Phoenix, Arizona. A prison many considered inhuman due to the intense summers and lack of air condition that the prison provided. Arpaio was even convicted of criminal contempt for ignoring an order to stop illegally detaining suspected undocumented immigrants.

Villains like David Clarke, who’s Milwaukee jail had been reported to have had four inmates — including an infant — die. One of the cases, which involved a mentally ill inmate, Clark was said to have withheld water from for seven days until he died from dehydration.

As the cliché goes, that sort of thing never happens here.

Not in our backyards, not where we eat or where we walk the dog. Except it does, right here at the Cuyahoga County Jail where six inmates died- three of which from suicide.

It sounds more like a movie than it does something that’s real. Yet this week we learn that it is as real as the prison they used to film Shawshank. A review by U.S. Marshal Pete Elliot, that was posted by several news outlets, had found that there were several key things that the jail lacked and endangered the inmates.

Here is the link to the report in which the following outlines:

It outlined that several of the employees who worked in the medical wing of the prison had expired certifications, zero licenses on file or even a diploma proving they even knew anything about medical treatment. Other members of the medical team had board actions on their verifications but lacked documentation of it. They’re also understaffed: in 2018, because the jail was so overcrowded, that inmates requiring close attention because of health complications were put on hold for months.

The security team is no different: dubbed “The Men in Black,” because of their all black uniforms it was revealed that they were brutally treating the inmates according to interviews by the review team and witnessing first hand one members mistreatment of an inmate.

Even their basic hygiene had failed to meet the standards of a regular prison. Sometimes, inmates are forced to shower during what is called a “Red Zone,” protocol which is when inmates are locked in their cells for 27 hours due to insufficient staffing. Inmates were also forced to shower in front of other inmates and the staff because they refused to install curtains for privacy. They were also subjected to “No Contact Housing,” which prevented them from receiving phone calls, mail or basic privileges like toilet paper, or dental hygiene products like toothpaste and toothbrushes.

Not to mention the fact that the jail also failed to feed inmates the required intake of calories during meals. Inmates that required special needs for their meals were often underfed and mostly ignored by the staff also. The food they received also lacked proper refrigeration and the area it was stored in smelled like “dead vermin.”

The jail also suffered from overcrowding. The jail only had a designed capacity for 1,765 inmates but had over 2,000 inmates. Holding cells that were designed for inmates awaiting trial, only meant for two inmates at a time were stuffed with 12 and held there, locked in there for 10 hours at a time with no access to basic necessities.

Animals in a zoo, though I’m sure even the animals are treated better.

Inmates, regardless of their crime and conviction, are still humans.

End of discussion: It’s atrocious to think that these men, women and children (for whom were mixed with the adult population of the jail) were subjected to these kind of conditions while we turned a blind eye to it. In fact, last March the very same county jail that the U.S. Marshals deemed one of the worst prisons in history had received a 100% and a 90% on the standards that Ohio requires them to uphold.

As Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish writes:

“It is important to put this in context. The County Jail is inspected each year by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. The County relies on the state to identify issues in our jails through this annual audit process. Each year the County Jail has been determined to be in compliance with state standards.

In fact, in the most recent evaluation, issued this past March, the state jail inspection team stated their “congratulations on achieving compliance with 100% of the essential and at least 90% of the important standards,” and “sincere congratulations on achieving compliance.”

Moreover, a member of the local U.S. Marshal’s Office conducted an inspection this year because the Marshals are housing prisoners in the county jail and based on that inspection the Marshals determined to continue to place their prisoners in the County jail…”

They were congratulated for the environment that the jail kept.


While he acknowledges that six inmates have died while being held there but that doesn’t erase the fact that he tries to put the horrid conditions that the inmates have been held in “context.” They passed the states standards for prison. However as Serial: the popular crime podcast documents in their newest season — Ohio’s standards in the court system are extremely harsh and unforgiving at times.

I wouldn’t call being noncompliant or deficient with the Prison Rape Elimination Act over 100 times, passing any standard. That was back in 2015 as part of a voluntary audit that was conducted. These prisoner’s lives are in danger.

Even the U.S. Marshals pulled out their federal prisoners because the conditions were too inhumane to keep anyone there. Federal prisoners, those who had committed crimes worse than most of the population in those jails were pulled out for prisons with better conditions.

Now that the spotlight has been shined on the county jail, officials are working to correct the problems of the jail that were put in place by them. What if it wasn’t shown and the jail’s conditions were kept in the dark? How many more inmates would have died before the county executive planned to make a change?

We have enforced this culture in Ohio where if you break the law you deserve what ever punishment you get. You forfeit your rights and now belong to the government. I too used to believe this until I started looking at the record of facilities mistreating their inmates, subjecting them to horrible conditions like the ones at the Cuyahoga County Jail.

Even when I discuss this matter with friends and family, they believe that they had their chance to live a normal life and lost it. They get what they deserve. While I certainly believe that some offenders deserve what they get (sex offenders, murderers etc.) I do not believe that just because one enters the jail system they do not deserve a life in and out of it.

If we mourn then they mourn also, if we can feel joy then they can too, if we bleed then they also bleed. These are fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who are essentially being sent to their deaths because of the mishandling of this prison.

If that prison can meet Ohio’s standards for a functioning prison, then Ohio needs to update its standards. If it’s because of overcrowding in the system, then we need to reorganize and restructure the way our prison system works because the current way things are done is not good enough. This needs to stop.

Inmates, despite crimes or convictions, are humans too.

Alex Kamczyc is an award winning journalist covering politics and culture in Cleveland. He studied at Kent State University under Connie Schultz.

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