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Sheriff Says He Had Little Role In Decision-Making On Troubled Jail

Cuyahoga County Sheriff Clifford Pinkney told county council members he had little say in major decisions at the county jail as the inmate population rose, deaths mounted and investigators launched probes into conditions there.

Pinkney, who retires at the end of the week, appeared before county council Tuesday after council issued an unprecedented subpoena demanding answers about the troubled jail system. He and his attorney had declined to answer questions at an earlier hearing.

Council members pressed Pinkney to explain who was really in charge of the jail. The sheriff portrayed himself as left out of key decisions by Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish’s administration on consolidating local jails under county control and hiring Ken Mills as jail director.

“I reported up, and it goes all the way up to the executive,” Pinkney said.

Pinkney said he raised concerns to other administration officials about Mills, who was his subordinate. But he said he made no written record of those complaints.

The sheriff said he approved the hiring of more jail system nurses, but that Mills denied the request—an allegation also made last year by then-nursing director Gary Brack.

Pinkney also said he asked the county human resources department to investigate former warden Eric Ivey after November’s U.S. Marshals Service report calling jail conditions “inhumane.”

“I heard nothing,” Pinkney said. “No one got back with me. I believe they conducted an investigation, but I don’t know. No one got back with me.”

Several inmates have sued the county over jail conditions. Mills, Ivey and several corrections officers have pleaded not guilty to criminal charges stemming from an ongoing investigation into the facility.  

The jail population is around 2,100 now—lower than it used to be, but well over the recommended capacity of 1,765. The majority are awaiting trial, Pinkney said, and could spend an average of 99 days in jail. 

Asked about reducing overcrowding, the sheriff said he wasn’t sure he could accurately answer. But he offered some possibilities: release more people before trial, and get people into treatment for mental illness and addiction. 

“We have a lot of folks in custody that have mental illness, and we don’t have the appropriate resources to deal with those folks in a correctional facility,” he said.

Mills’ attorney, Kevin Spellacy, referred to Pinkney as an “absentee sheriff,” saying problems at the jail persisted after Mills left the job.

“We still had a facility that was understaffed. We still had problems that still exist today. The sheriff hasn’t changed. He’s been the same sheriff,” Spellacy said. “It couldn’t be Mills. Right? You had deaths after Mills left. The constant in the equation is the sheriff, end of story.”

The story will go on for now, but likely behind closed doors. Council is considering an executive session to discuss jail deaths and other topics deemed possibly damaging to ongoing cases, tentatively scheduled for Aug. 13.

Without naming the county executive specifically, Councilman Jack Schron raised the possibility of calling Budish himself to testify about the jail.

“So the only way we’re going to get an answer to who hired Mr. Mills, and who made this decision to run this jail system, in your opinion, is to go a chair way above yours, and have that person sit there and answer these exact same questions?” Schron asked.

“Yes,” Pinkney replied.

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