CUYAHOGA COUNTY, OH – Six U.S. citizens dying while in custody under elected County Executive Armond Budish and appointed Sheriff Clifford Pinkney brought an October 30 visit to the jail by FBI agents under U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman’s direction who want to know why. EJBNEWS learned from a man being held while awaiting trial that he and other people locked up were interviewed by FBI agents about jail conditions. The man said federal agents also interviewed county corrections officers.
According to the detained man, a U.S. citizen, FBI agents witnessed the overcrowding in the 2000 person facility and had to step over some of the 60 people on the floor in a pod with 40 beds. Complaints where shared about the lack of medical treatment and prescription medications. Agents were told by some of not being supplied with toilet paper.
The man said agents heard some of the same issues about judges holding people in jail for being poor that federal investigators discovered when President Barack Obama’s administration investigated the municipal court in Ferguson, Missouri after Michael Brown was shot to death by cop Darren Wilson in 2014.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder released a report that described unconstitutional and unlawful “jail the poor because they’re poor” acts Ferguson’s municipal court judge was committing that were being mirrored in other courts across the nation.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Vanita Gupta and Lisa Foster authored a March 14, 2016 letter to the nation’s judges warning them of their unconstitutional acts. The letter was immediately shared with the state’s 722 judges via email by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor of the Supreme Court of Ohio warning them all to stop. Gupta and Foster previously warned judges and prosecutors that 18 U.S.C. 241 and 242 applied to them as equally as it does police officers.
“As the Department of Justice set forth in detail in a federal court brief last year, and as courts have long recognized, any bail practices that result in incarceration based on poverty violate the Fourteenth Amendment. See Statement of Interest of the United States, Varden v. City of Clanton, No. 2:15-cv-34-MHT-WC, at 8 (M.D. Ala., Feb. 13, 2015) (citing Bearden, 461 U.S. at 671; Tate, 401 U.S. at 398; Williams, 399 U.S. at 240-41).10 Systems that rely primarily on secured monetary bonds without adequate consideration of defendants’ financial means tend to result in the incarceration of poor defendants who pose no threat to public safety solely because they cannot afford to pay.”
The presence of FBI agents at the Cuyahoga County jail suggests that a preliminary investigation is underway to learn if any federal laws are being violated.
Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Michael Nelson wasn’t on the bench when Gupta and Foster sent their letter to Chief Justice O’Connor in 2016. After the 6th death Nelson said he wasn’t sending low level and non-violent offenders to the overcrowded, understaffed and now life and safety-threatening jail.
“Going to jail for any reason should not be a death sentence,” said Nelson who before his election served as the Cleveland NAACP chapter president.
While there’s no guarantee that the FBI’s preliminary meeting with citizens in detention and corrections officers will lead to a criminal or civil investigation by the U.S. Attorney, the manuals used by Justice Department prosecutors provides the following insights on the internal discussions that may now be taking place.
At the outset of a criminal investigation initiated by a United States Attorney’s Office that may implicate federal criminal civil rights statutes, including human trafficking and involuntary servitude statutes, 18 U.S.C. §§ 1581 to 1594, and in no event later than ten days before the commencement of the examination of witnesses before a grand jury, the United States Attorney’s Office shall advise the Civil Rights Division in writing of the new investigation. The notification should be in writing and contain the following information: (1) identity of the targets of the investigation; (2) the factual allegations under investigation; (3) the statutes that may have been violated; (4) the United States Attorney’s Office’s assessment of the significance of the case and whether the case is one of “national interest,” as defined below; and (5) the United States Attorney’s Office’s proposed staffing of the matter, including whether a Civil Rights Division attorney should be assigned to work directly on the matter. The United States Attorney’s Office will advise the Civil Rights Division as the case develops of new information relating to the United States Attorney’s Office’s assessment of the case and whether it is one of “national interest.”