A high-ranking leader in the Cuyahoga County Jail raised alarms in October about the lack of help offered to people before they are sent back onto the streets.
But after questioning the shortcomings of the jail’s reentry work during his first six weeks on the job, Warden Jeremy Everett’s concerns were not met with change.
Instead, all he received from his boss was a demand that he resign.
The longtime jail administrator had also sought help from the state, but his sudden departure stalled efforts to assist people leaving jail through a reentry program such as those operated by other large counties in Ohio.
“They basically kick people to the curb,” said Evan O’Reilly, a spokesperson for the Cuyahoga County Jail Coalition, a group advocating for change in the county justice system. “It’s been a problem for a while.”
Changes are now coming after The Marshall Project - Cleveland began investigating Everett’s concerns.
Cuyahoga County Sheriff Harold Pretel is vowing to create a reentry program modeled on those in other counties.
His decision comes after The Marshall Project - Cleveland reviewed emails Everett sent to the state and other Cuyahoga County officials regarding the lack of reentry services to help guide people leaving the jail.
Several large Ohio counties offer reentry services to help individuals obtain basic needs, such as housing, employment and health programs. Many advocates say reentry programs lower the risk of repeat offenses.
Counties like Franklin, which includes Columbus, and Lorain have reentry offices specifically designed to connect people to providers for services such as health care, transportation and housing. The assistance is offered prior to a person’s release.
In Cuyahoga County, those leaving the jail are only shown the door. Pretel says that needs to change.
“It is something we should address,” Pretel conceded in an interview with The Marshall Project - Cleveland. “I would like to take a page from Lorain and Franklin counties and tailor it to us. It’s a higher-level priority.”
The move for impactful reentry services is spreading across county jails after Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Sharon L. Kennedy formed the Supreme Court of Ohio Reentry Task Force in April.
The task force represents state and local agencies, judges, law enforcement, and community health and rehabilitation partners. Its mission is to “analyze the needs, services, and practices between courts and the reentry population,” according to the Ohio Supreme Court’s website.
The task force will examine jail release efforts and is expected to report its findings and recommendations to the Ohio Supreme Court by June 1, 2024.
Other counties with existing reentry programs include Tuscarawas, Butler, Montgomery, Fairfield and Delaware, records show.
Pretel, who was appointed sheriff in July, pledged to visit Lorain and Franklin counties to learn more about their reentry programs.
For those who have experienced living behind bars, the need for services is clear.
On a recent Friday, Reamus Belcher retrieved his belongings after he was released from the Cuyahoga County Jail. As he was leaving the Justice Center, he said he wished the county offered services that connected him to temporary housing.
“We need something,” he said. “They do nothing here. Nothing.”
While Cuyahoga County doesn’t have reentry workers in the jail, it does operate an Office of Reentry located on Fulton Parkway — about 6 miles from the county jail in downtown Cleveland.
Their work is seemingly anonymous. They don’t conduct outreach or meet directly with people leaving jail. The office functions as a funding source for community groups designed to offer help after someone leaves the jail.
Pretel said he was unaware the county operated the reentry office until The Marshall Project - Cleveland told him.
“I have not spoken to them,” Pretel admitted.
The county Office of Reentry, with a budget of more than $2.8 million and five employees, says on its website it “serves as a funder, convener, and collaborator in the reentry space.”
The county’s 2024-2025 budget says the office provides services like “increased access to employment, education, housing, transportation, and healthcare.” The recommended 2024 budget shows personnel services would be nearly $579,000 and other expenses would total over $2.1 million.
But The Marshall Project - Cleveland found that parts of the office’s website have not been updated since 2021. For example, the meeting dates for its reentry coalition board and members were from two years ago.
The website also does not list the hours when workers are present, noting that its offices are “temporarily closed to the public.”
The office quickly updated numerous sections, including the data and meeting dates, of the website after The Marshall Project - Cleveland pointed out the outdated information. County spokeswoman Kelly Woodard didn’t address specific questions about why the site listed outdated information.
“The office supports community partners through funding to provide basic services such as housing, employment, and transportation to formerly incarcerated individuals,” she said in a statement.
Woodard added the office helped more than 11,000 people in the reentry population in 2022 through programs and services, but provided no documents to substantiate the figure.
Damian Calvert, a chair for the Office of Reentry’s Greater Cleveland Reentry Leadership Coalition, once served as an outreach manager for Cleveland’s Community Relations Board. He has also performed contract work for The Marshall Project - Cleveland.
He called the Office of Reentry ineffective because, he said, politics seemingly looms over every decision.
“There’s not a lot of county support,” said Calvert, who served 18 years in Ohio prisons. “[Reentry workers] should be in the jail. We should have a heavy presence. It’s a hot political item. Politicians don’t want to touch it.”
These obstacles should not get in the way of providing vital services to the hundreds of people cycling through the county jail, Calvert said.
“We need an agency to help stabilize people back into the community,” he said. “They’re coming to a neighborhood near you. It’s a safety issue. People need help.”
Woodard also did not address Calvert’s criticism.
Meanwhile, Everett’s departure continues to raise questions as to why Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne’s administration forced him to resign. Ronayne’s staff has declined numerous requests to explain the forced resignation. While seeking office, Ronayne pledged to be more transparent than his predecessor.
In reviewing emails Everett sent to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, The Marshall Project-Cleveland repeatedly asked Cuyahoga County for the initial email Everett sent about the lack of reentry services.
Woodard said no other records exist and that Everett might have made the request by phone and not via email.
Yet records show an email reply to Everett from a state reentry official mentions his initial emailed request.
Everett has declined to comment on his resignation.
Ohio law requires the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to offer reentry services for those leaving the state prison system. But the law does not yet require reentry assistance at county jails, where people tend to stay for shorter periods or while awaiting trial.
Nonetheless, a movement is afoot by county sheriffs around Ohio to offer reentry services to help reduce rates of crime after release, or otherwise failing to meet terms of parole, and thus lower jail populations and costs.
When Franklin County opened the second phase to its new jail earlier this year, it incorporated a Rapid Resource Center into its releasing and processing unit.
The center is open around the clock to connect individuals to medical, transportation, housing, medicated-assisted treatment and other services, said Geoff Stobart, chief deputy with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office.
The center is operated by the county’s Office of Justice Policy and Programs, not the Sheriff’s Office.
The center also houses community partners and other government agencies such as Job and Family Services to help restore Medicaid benefits for those released.
To heighten awareness, people leaving the jail must walk through the Rapid Resource Center, Stobart said. Franklin County releases about 75 percent of people in the jail back into the local communities, he said.
Reentry workers also track those who receive services. Their goal is stopping or reducing the number of people cycling back through the jail merely for committing what Stobart described as “survival crimes.”
“It’s one-stop shopping to connect people back into the community,” he said. “It helps tremendously.”
Franklin County Commissioner Kevin Boyce said it’s vital to help individuals who find themselves in crisis mode as they reenter their community.
“Those people need access to resources and people that can help guide them and then navigate them through the system,” Boyce told WBNS in 2021.
In Lorain County, jail officials have been operating a “rapid reentry” program for several years to connect with people within 24 hours of entering the jail. The urgency is necessary because many people are often released within 10 days of arriving.
Andrew Laubenthal, a project specialist with the Lorain County Sheriff’s Office, leads the county’s effort in connecting people with services before they leave the jail. He also serves on the Ohio Supreme Court’s reentry task force.
While the jail is smaller than those of Franklin and Cuyahoga counties, Lorain County focuses on veterans and individuals experiencing homelessness and drug withdrawals, Laubenthal said.
“We try to get them off on a better foot,” Laubenthal said.
Alyssa Hertelendy is the jail’s reentry coordinator. A county board provides a grant to pay her salary and benefits. She said she pushes to quickly help people because some might be released within days of arriving.
“I believe I am making a difference,” she said. “It’s tough because there are limited resources.”
Matthew Wickline, who is preparing to leave the jail, welcomed the information on services for outpatient alcohol treatment. He said he was arrested twice in two months for driving under the influence and is intent on obtaining the needed resources to avoid returning.
“I’m trying to do this to help myself,” he said.
It’s a different story 30 miles east at the Cuyahoga County Jail. The reputation of one of the state’s largest jails is mired in negative headlines about numerous deaths and inhumane conditions in the aging and decrepit facility.
News 5 has chronicled the problems of “abuse, suicides, lawsuits, accidental releases, and leadership issues” over the years.
Pretel said the time is right to build the reentry program. Cuyahoga County is poised to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to construct a new jail away from the Justice Center in downtown Cleveland.
The county, he said, has “a blank slate” and can build with an eye toward future needs.
Pretel said he plans to send teams to Detroit and Indianapolis to examine new facilities to see what ideas could also work in Cuyahoga County.
“This is something that is important to us,” he said.