Moments of the Whirlwind: Cuyahoga County Jail


Movements do not happen by chance — they are planned deliberately, scaled intentionally. They are targeted and purposeful and messy.

In mid-May, I attended the organizer training “Momentum” in Minneapolis in hopes of strengthening my understanding of organizing people and my role in the large-scale movements forming around us. I was able to meet people who were on the ground in Minneapolis during the occupation of the 4th precinct following the murder of Jamar Clark by police in 2017.

I met a woman who spent several nights in a D.C. jail, engaging in a hunger strike in solidarity with the Dreamers whose rights were being enthusiastically threatened by Congress. Herself being a DACA recipient, she risked deportation.

Mind you, these are young people. I met 15 year olds fighting the privatization of water, 16 year olds organizing mass walkouts in response to police brutality in schools, 20-somethings combating Amazon in New York and working with legislators on environmental policy in D.C.

Meeting these folks was nothing short of inspiring and humbling. I was able to see the larger ecosystem of activism that the groups I work with operate within. In Cleveland, there are so many organizations fighting these same fights, and countless opportunities to get involved.

In Cuyahoga County we have a crisis on our hands. Real people with families, with homes, with jobs are being abused and neglected in the county jail. The majority of these victims have not been charged with a crime, but rather are awaiting their trial and cannot afford bail. The U.S. Marshal’s report done in 2018 exposed the gross human rights abuses that continue even to this day.

We learned the importance of capitalizing on what Momentum coins “Moments of the Whirlwind” — those trigger events that inspire the community to respond and activate. In recent weeks, there have been numerous reasons to be outraged. Thirty-six-year-old Nicholas Colbert died on May 10th after spending two nights in the jail on a drug possession charge. Colbert was a veteran who had reported past suicidal thoughts to jail nurses upon booking and was awaiting treatment for his addiction. He is the ninth person to die in the jail in the past 12 months.

Meanwhile, another lawsuit has emerged against the county this month, this time from a former Metro Hospitals employee who was fired after reporting the inhumane condition to county officials. The county sheriff has suddenly decided to retire. Video from inside the jail has made public the behavior of corrections officers. We have now witnessed a restrained woman being pepper sprayed from just inches away from her face and COs ignoring a man in the midst of an overdose. It is my hope that these are moments of the whirlwind and that those who are able will make their voices heard.

Momentum has prompted me to ask the tough questions: Whose side are you on? Are you paying attention? What will you do?

There are opportunities to support this movement whether you have time to lend or money to donate. Visit the Coalition to Stop the Inhumanity at the County website here to sign the online petition and view upcoming canvass dates, meetings, and protests.

Jenna Thomas is a sophomore at Cleveland State University studying nonprofit administration and Spanish. She is particularly interested in refugee and immigrant services and criminal justice reform, and is a tutor at Building Hope in the City’s Hope Center. In addition, Jenna is the founder and president of CSU’s university chapter of Free the Slaves working to make CSU a certified Fair Trade University.


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