The Biden administration’s push to end contracts with private prisons has left federal authorities in Cleveland scrambling to find ways to house nearly 800 inmates.
A contract between the U.S. Marshals Service and CoreCivic, owner of the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown, expired Sunday. Authorities, however, were granted a three-month reprieve, and officials are pushing for additional time to study alternatives.
The company said in a statement that it does not expect the government to renew the contract when the extension ends. It also said there are “no safe or logistically viable alternatives for the Marshals Service.”
Since the early 2000s, the company has contracted with the Marshals Service to house inmates awaiting trial or sentencing in federal courtrooms in Youngstown, Akron and Cleveland. For years, inmates were held in county and city jails, with federal dollars boosting local budgets.
However, in recent years, the Youngstown facility handled nearly all the pretrial detention services for federal courts. Cuyahoga County had held detainees until authorities removed them from the jail after marshals found widespread civil rights issues there in 2018.
CoreCivic referred questions about the contract to the Marshals Service. U.S. Marshal Peter Elliott declined to comment.
Officials fear that there are not enough jail beds available in Northeast Ohio to house the detainees. Others worry that the inmates could be moved out of the region or the state, making it difficult for family members to visit and defense attorneys to consult with them.
“There are concerns about our ability to effectively represent our clients if they are moved outside the district,” said Stephen Newman, the federal public defender for northern Ohio. “Access to our clients is very important.”
Terry Gilbert, a criminal defense and civil rights attorney in Cleveland, said he opposes private prisons, “but if you don’t have a substitute plan, then you have a problem.”
“If they are going to terminate the contract, they better have some place that is safe – with health care, mental health and other programs, as well as access to private attorney visitation rooms,” Gilbert said.
U.S. District Judge Patricia Gaughan, the chief judge for the Northern District of Ohio, said she has spoken with U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown’s office about the critical need facing inmates and their attorneys.
Brown has asked the Justice Department to “identify locations in Ohio that can safely house the detainees that must be transferred and ensure continued access to their attorneys as their cases proceed,” a spokeswoman for Brown said.
Within days of taking office, President Joseph Biden ordered the Justice Department to avoid renewing contracts with companies that run prisons. He told reporters that he wanted to stop businesses from “profiting off incarceration.” At first, officials were unconcerned about the issue in Ohio, as the state does not have a private federal prison.
The Northeast Ohio Correctional Center, however, is more of a detention center for federal inmates. It also has about 850 inmates from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. It is one of three privately run facilities that contracts with the state.
The Marshals Service has 16 private detention facilities nationally. The average cost per inmate per day is nearly $100, according to the Marshals Service’s 2020 fiscal report.
Attorneys said there were plans to build a detention center near the federal courthouse in Cleveland years ago. The proposal, however, never gained traction.
Across the state, about 200 federal inmates awaiting trials are held at the Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio, a facility operated by five counties, including Lucas.
Federal detainees in southern Ohio are held in jails and facilities across Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati. A few, depending on the case, are held in the Youngstown facility.