In the wake of the death of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson won the office of President of the United States in a landslide victory in November of 1964.
While Johnson and the Democratic Party languished in their victory, seeds of dissent were growing around the nation over the escalation of the war in Vietnam. Johnson was seemingly oblivious to the growing anti-Vietnam War sentiment. As a result, his place in history will be forever marred by Vietnam.
It is likely that Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish’s Vietnam will be the death of eight inmates in the Cuyahoga County jail in 2018. As John Dean told Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, “There’s a cancer on the presidency.” The county jail is a cancer on the Budish administration and the county, and a curse on any person who is confined to a place so deplorable that the U.S. Marshals Service has labeled it as inhumane, with descriptions that match those of penal colonies in third-world countries.
Budish filled a political void in 2014 by succeeding the county’s first county executive, Edward FitzGerald. After a lackluster first term, he won a second term when he defeated former write-in candidate, Republican Peter Corrigan in the November election. But that victory came with 19,189 undervotes — that is, voters who chose not to vote in that race at all, which in a predominately Democratic county means that most of those non-voters were Democrats voicing their apathy or dislike for Budish.
As a result of the adoption of a new county charter in 2010, the responsibility of the jail falls on the shoulders of the county executive, making Cuyahoga County the only county in the state that does not have an elected sheriff. Under the provisions of the charter, the county executive appoints the sheriff who runs the jail. That means that the buck stops on Budish’s desk when blame is assessed for deaths, deplorable conditions and inadequate medical treatment in the jail.
Like any penal institution, the jail must provide health care to its inmates, made up of large numbers of people with mental health issues, drug problems and long-term untreated illnesses who for the most part arrive at the jail with no medical records. Treatment of such a population requires a specialized area of health care services, and it is not always easy to staff. Whatever the cost of proper medical treatment, it will pale when compared to the cost of settlements already paid out by the county for damages for injured and deceased inmates and for the final disposition of those lawsuits that are already pending and sure to come as the result of recent deaths.
In December, the Plain Dealer reported that Budish personally requested the ouster of the jail’s medical supervisor Gary Brack, who works for Metro Hospital, the institution that provides medical services to the jail. Brack contradicted the glowing depiction of conditions at the jail by a Budish staffer at a county council hearing. According to Brack’s account, jail director Ken Mills interfered with the hiring of nurses and made the jail’s medical unit unsafe by scaling back security. His testimony did not sit well with Budish. He wanted Brack gone and traveled to Metro Hospital to make his demands clear. Brack no longer works for Metro Hospital, but recently testified before the grand jury about conditions in the jail.
Mills became Director of Jail Operations in 2014 even though he had no prior experience in corrections. He abruptly resigned just ahead of the U.S. Marshals’ report on conditions in the jail.
Admittedly the problems at the jail did not start on Budish’s watch. It opened in 1976 and has always been overcrowded, with its population constantly over capacity and perennially understaffed. The problems are old and systemic. The jail is located in an aging physical plant that needs massive renovations or a replacement, a proposition that will not come cheap. For elected officials, the building of a new jail is never a politically attractive endeavor.
Working conditions at the jail are described as abysmal, evidenced by the high number of turnovers of corrections officers and staff. Salaries are low and while this may not be the case currently, under previous administrations, hiring was largely based on who you knew or who you were related to. The situation is so bad that Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Michael Nelson recently made national news when he announced that he would no longer sentence people to the jail.
Over the last month, the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s office has issued subpoenas for records from the jail, along with emails and correspondence from current and former staff. Law Director Robert Triozzi, along with Council’s Public Safety Committee Chair Michael Gallagher, Metro Hospital Director Akram Boutros and others have testified before the Grand Jury and it does not look like the prosecutor’s office is slowing down.
Budish’s selection of inept and incompetent lackeys who do not have the ability to run an operation of the size and magnitude of the county jail have caused many voters to consider proposing a charter amendment to re-establish the office of an elected sheriff. While that may not be the solution to the problems that exist in the jail, the concept that an elected sheriff would make one person accountable has some merit.
Plain Dealer columnist Mark Naymik recently described Budish as a man with “marginal management skills and poor communication skills.” Budish’s lack of ability to properly communicate with the public is evidenced by his infrequent press conferences and lack of transparency. The community perceives him as a man in hiding and he does little to improve that image when one of his only large-scale public appearance is his annual state of the county address and a few Democratic ward clubs.
To politicians, a few demonstrators in front of a public building do not always become a matter of great concern. But when a multi-racial, bipartisan group of 50 people shows up on New Year’s Eve during a torrential rain to demonstrate at the home of an elected official, those concerns should be taken seriously. That’s what happened to Armond Budish. Would it have been so difficult for Budish to come out and meet with the protestors or send an aide to schedule a meeting? From behind the fortress of his gated Beachwood home, Budish should realize that “Houston — we have a problem.”
Vietnam did not start with Lyndon Johnson. Its roots can be traced to decisions made decades earlier. But when the proverbial fecal matter hit the rotating blades, Johnson was sitting in the Oval Office. He had to wear the jacket.
Armond Budish should have suited up months ago and donned the jacket for the deaths at the county jail — for the inmates that left in body bags — for the grieving families. The task he faces is monumental but not insurmountable. If he’s not up to the job or just doesn’t care, maybe he should step aside and go back to planning estates and advising the elderly on how to avoid the estate tax, which proved very profitable in his earlier life. Otherwise, have the guts to recognize the problems that exist in the county jail and hire the right people and medical staff who can fix it before more people die.
The system is broke; someone has to fix it — and that may not be Armond Budish.
C. Ellen Connally is a retired judge of the Cleveland Municipal Court. From 2010 to 2014 she served as the President of the Cuyahoga County Council. An avid reader and student of American history, she serves on the Board of the Ohio History Connection, is currently vice president of the Cuyahoga County Soldiers and Sailors Monument Commission and treasurer of the Cleveland Civil War Round Table. She holds degrees from BGSU, CSU and is all but dissertation for a PhD from the University of Akron.