State lawmaker wants legislative hearings on correctional centers after I-Team investigation into River City

Rep. Cecil Thomas: WCPO 9 investigation 'blew my mind'
Surveillance video recorded June 17, 2022, showed an inmate punching another inmate in the River City Correctional Center, according to an incident report
Posted at 9:12 PM, Mar 06, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-08 10:24:29-05

CINCINNATI — After reviewing the findings of WCPO 9’s investigation of the River City Correctional Center, state Rep. Cecil Thomas is calling for a state legislative hearing to question officials under oath about how the state-funded facility is being operated.

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” Rep. Cecil Thomas said. “There’s some problems that need some serious attention.”

River City Correctional Center escapee Thomas Cromwell during a stand off with police in July 2022 before an officer shot and killed him
River City Correctional Center escapee Thomas Cromwell during a stand off with police in July 2022 before an officer shot and killed him

The I-Team’s eight-month-long ongoing investigation began in July 2022 after two inmates escaped from River City. One of the escapees, Thomas Cromwell, held a woman hostage at knifepoint for about 12 hours before an officer shot and killed him.

Since then, the I-Team has examined more than 1,000 pages of documents and hours of video from courts, law enforcement agencies, River City and the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

River City incident reports — reported exclusively by the I-Team — document inmate violations inside the facility, including staff concerns about the “security threat” posed by alleged members of a prison gang in 2022.

“That’s crazy,” Thomas said of the incidents. "I have to thank Channel 9 for bringing it to our attention."

The I-Team also obtained a list of River City employees and searched for their names in local court databases. Court records confirmed that River City had hired two people with active felony cases to supervise inmates and provide protection for the minimum-security facility, also in 2022. The I-Team confirmed that one of them had active warrants for her arrest for three months of her employment with River City.

River City ended their employment after confirming they had active felony cases, according to Executive Director Scott McVey.

In a written statement provided last Friday at the I-Team's request, McVey emphasized that River City used Bureau of Criminal Investigations background checks that didn't show their active criminal cases.

"As a result, RCCC implemented additional background checks to try to prevent similar incidents from occurring the future," McVey wrote. "RCCC has also been open about detailing the response to violence within the resident population, while supporting RCCC staff and maintaining their safety within the facility."

McVey did not respond to Thomas' call for a legislative hearing on River City and Ohio's other Community-based Correctional Facilities.

Thomas represents the 25th House District. River City is in the district on Cincinnati’s west side.

He serves on the House Finance Subcommittee on Public Safety and other committees that he said could consider hearing testimony about what’s happening at River City and Ohio’s other Community-based Correctional Facilities(CBCFs).

Ohio State Rep. Cecil Thomas
Ohio State Rep. Cecil Thomas

Thomas said lawmakers should examine how the facilities are funded and operated.

“I think there needs to be a top-down overview of the program,” Thomas said. “This is an issue of public safety. I think some of our other legislators will be very interested in taking a look at this because they — in their jurisdictions — they have these facilities.”

According to Ohio's Department of Rehabilitation and Correction budget for 2022, the state's CBCFs received nearly $85 million. River City's grant agreement shows it received $12.8 million.

CBCFs are structured differently than jails and prisons.

River City is owned by the Hamilton County government. But the facility is overseen by the nine-member RCCC Facility Governing Board. Hamilton County Commissioners approve the appointments of three board members. The Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas appoints the other six members.

ODRC funds and conducts inspections of River City. The department also reviews the facility’s programming for compliance.

Under the ODRC grant agreement, River City is required to provide quarterly financial and statistical reports to ODRC that “contain information necessary for evaluating the facility and program.”

"RCCC is in good standing with the ODRC, while also maintaining compliance with the American Correctional Association (ACA) standards," McVey wrote in his statement.

The I-Team has filed a public records request with ODRC for a copy of River City’s quarterly reports filed since Jan. 1, 2022. ODRC is processing our request.

Thomas said one of the things that troubled him the most about the I-Team’s investigation was what he perceived as River City’s lack of transparency and public officials’ refusal to be interviewed and answer questions about what’s happening there.

“That’s huge because you’re talking about public trust,” Thomas said.

Thomas and former Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters said River City’s structure is partly to blame.

Despite ODRC funding River City, inspecting the facility, reviewing its programming, and requiring quarterly reports as part of the grant agreement, ODRC spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said the department won’t comment on the facility’s operations because it’s not responsible for that.

Hamilton County Commissioners Alicia Reece, Stephanie Dumas and Denise Driehaus declined or failed to respond to several I-Team requests for interviews or comment.

River City Correctional Center Executive Director Scott McVey
River City Correctional Center Executive Director Scott McVey

River City Executive Director Scott McVey has declined a dozen requests for on-camera interviews with the I-Team. The I-Team has emailed numerous questions to McVey. He has answered many, but not all of them.

In his previous comments and in the statement provided last Friday to the I-Team, McVey insisted that River City has been transparent.

"RCCC has repeatedly responded to questions about these incidents in a transparent manner, providing information about these incidents, as well as candid descriptions of the facility’s response to the incidents," McVey wrote.

The board has declined our requests for interviews.

Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas judges and Administrator Patrick Dressing have either not responded or declined the I-Team’s requests for interviews.

“That creates even more alarm,” Thomas said. “That has to stop.”

“Lack of transparency” 

From the first days of the I-Team’s investigation, it's been a challenge at times to get basic information and obtain records relating to River City.

On July 14, McVey refused the I-Team’s initial request for River City’s inmate roster because it was a “treatment facility” and those records were private.

The I-Team told him the rosters were public and that he needed to comply with state law and provide them. The next day, McVey provided the inmate roster.

After that, the I-Team requested River City surveillance video of an assault in June and other incidents the same night that involved prison gang members.

In an email to the I-Team, McVey insisted River City didn’t have the video because their video recording system recycled video after 30 days. The I-Team pushed back and asked him to look in other places where it may have been saved like a computer hard drive.

McVey said he found it. Then, he gave us a copy of the video.

Surveillance video recorded a series of confrontations between inmates at the River City Correctional Center on June 17
Surveillance video recorded a series of confrontations between inmates at the River City Correctional Center on June 17

The I-Team also requested surveillance video for other incidents in 2022 including those that involved staff use-of-force, assaults, inmates threatening to kill staff or other inmates and — in some cases — people being injured, but McVey wrote in email responses that River City had no video of those incidents.

In an email last summer, McVey wrote that surveillance video isn't saved unless it involves an escape because escapees are charged with escape.

Surveillance video of some incidents has been provided to ODRC and other agencies, but those videos are not retained by River City, according to McVey.

Thomas said that is troubling.

“You tell me you didn’t keep the video?” Thomas, a retired longtime Cincinnati police officer, asked rhetorically. “Here’s a situation where you got a very serious violation. You had the video, but then you destroyed it? There’s something wrong with that policy right off the bat.”

In his statement provided to the I-Team last Friday, McVey wrote, "RCCC has also been open about detailing the response to violence within the resident population, while supporting RCCC staff and maintaining their safety within the facility. This has included continued review of security camera footage storage issues."

Handling of inmate incidents at River City under question

May 2022  

Based on tips from former River City inmate supervisors, the I-Team requested and received reports documenting incidents in May 2022.

According to the documents, River City sanctioned several dozen inmates in May for violating policies, procedures and — in some cases — the law.

Thomas said some of the incidents and how River City responded to them raise additional concerns about the facility, how it operates and what information River City may not be sharing with the public, even in official reports.

“This is a publicly run facility,” Thomas said. “There’s been a huge breakdown in the intent in the beginning to where it is now.”

The I-Team showed Thomas River City incident reports for May 2022. We recently requested and obtained the reports after reviewing a tip about an incident involving inmate John Walker.

Inmate John P. Walker  

Thomas said River City's handling of incidents with Walker raised many questions that need to be answered.

May 9 – A River City incident report shows Walker received an immediate seven-day suspension of privileges for 'illegal behavior' in dining hall A. The report doesn't mention the date it happened or provide a description of what occurred.

May 14 – A resident supervisor saw Walker come out of his dorm area and threaten people who may have stolen from him, according to her report filed a day later. The employee wrote that Walker appeared to be intoxicated. She reported that Walker became “more aggressive” and tried to pick her up by placing his hands under her armpits on her breast area.

May 15 – The senior resident supervisor in charge during the incident emailed McVey a timeline of events from the previous night.

May 16 – The senior resident supervisor filed her report. It appears to have been copied and pasted from the email she sent McVey on May 15. The I-Team compared her email to the report and discovered entire sentences with important details that raise more questions about security that night were not included in her official incident report.

Example 1: In her email, she wrote that at approximately 7:13 p.m. a resident supervisor “stated he quit he not own this s*** anymore and walked out.” That sentence was not included in her incident report.

Example 2: In her email, she wrote that two resident supervisors were “off-site at 7:26 pm.” That sentence was not included in her incident report.

Example 3: In her email, she wrote that at approximately 7:30 p.m. the resident supervisor allegedly grabbed by Walker said that he had been acting up “for hours.” That was not included in her incident report.

In her email, she twice mentioned communicating with Director of Operations Michel Oppy, but that wasn't included in her incident report.

Example 4: In her email, she wrote, "Notified Operation of Security Oppy of the situation and called RSII Russell to come in." That sentence wasn’t included in her incident report.

Example 5: In her email, she wrote that at approximately 8:25 p.m. another resident supervisor “quit stating this too much to deal with.” That sentence wasn’t included in her incident report.

Example 6: In her email, the senior resident supervisor wrote that she “tried talking to her and stating can she just take a break and come back or was she finish she stated she was.” That sentence wasn’t included in her incident report.

The I-Team asked McVey, Board Chair Brandon Fox and Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas Administrator Patrick Dressing to comment on the Walker incident and the differences between the senior resident supervisor's email and her incident report.

They declined.

River City is required to provide reports about their ‘serious incidents’ to the Bureau of Community Sanctions, a division of ODRC. Those incidents are documented in ‘Special Incident Reports.’

According to ODRC’s program review standards, serious incidents include, but are not limited to, inappropriate sexual behavior, building emergencies, assaults, incidents or interviews that may result in a televised or published account in a news release and use of force.

Walker violated rules on ‘sexual behavior,’ ‘interfering with security and safety procedures’ and an ‘immediate threat of violence.’

Two resident supervisors “physically restrained” Walker and reported it as a ‘use-of-force,’ according to a third report filed by one of the two officers who used force on Walker.

But, according to ODRC, River City didn’t report what happened to the state as a ‘special incident.’

Instead, River City classified it as an ‘incident’ — one of dozens of incidents that happened in May documented in reports that remained with River City.

“If you have an incident report that should have been reported at the state level and you didn’t report it, that tells me we got a serious issues going on,” Thomas said. “I would think the board should have been upset about this.”

In an email to the I-Team, Fox wrote that they weren't commenting on that either.

We also asked ODRC for comment.

The I-Team provided those three incident reports and the supervisor’s email to ODRC and requested their response.

In a statement, the department said River City and other locally controlled Community Based Correctional Facilities “have operational authority and discretion on how to properly handle incidents locally and discretion to decide whether the incident is serious and requires notification.”

Inmate James Huber  

May 3 – A River City employee leading a group discussion asked Huber to share his future goals. According to the incident report, Huber said, “run my wife over.” The employee told Huber his comment was “inappropriate.”

May 4 – A River City employee reviewed inmate text messages and found that Huber had been making regular contact with his wife in violation of a protection order placed against him in a domestic violence case, according to the report. River City immediately suspended his privileges for seven days.

May 26 – A River City investigation found that Huber had been using another inmate’s phone card to contact his wife in violation of the protection order. Staff listened to Huber’s calls and heard him “make threats to cause physical harm” to a man if he didn’t stay away from his wife, according to a report. The call log showed Huber contacted her 10 times after he received his first sanction on May 4. In response to the additional violations, River City immediately suspended his privileges for seven days, according to the report.

May 29 – According to an incident report, Huber was in segregation. He was “negatively discharged” two days later on May 31, according to River City's response to our request for information on Huber's case.

Inmate Armando Ballard 

May 7 – Ballard walked up to a sitting resident, said something to him, then put his fingers in the other inmate’s face and pushed him, according to a report. The other resident moved Ballard’s hand away and stood up. Ballard “physically smacked” the other man. The victim moved back, almost falling. He grabbed his face, according to the report. Ballard ran away laughing. His privileges were immediately suspended for seven days, according to the report. McVey said Ballard was “successfully discharged” from River City on Sept. 9.

Inmate Frederick Middlebrooks 

May 9 – A River City resident supervisor saw Middlebrooks — a parole violator — sleeping in a classroom where he wasn’t supposed to be, according to the report. The sex offender registry shows Middlebrooks is a Tier 3 registered sex offender, the highest level of supervision requiring offenders to check in with authorities every 90 days. The employee went into the search history for the television in the room and found that Middlebrooks had been watching pornography, according to the report. Middlebrooks’ privileges were immediately suspended for seven days. McVey said Middlebrooks was “negatively discharged” from River City the next day.

Inmate Anthony Rowlett 

May 11 – Rowlett — a probation violator — yelled, had to be restrained by other inmates and staff, and threatened to shoot resident supervisors in the face if he saw them on the streets, according to the report. Rowlett was handcuffed and taken to segregation. He was “unsuccessfully discharged” from River City, according to the report. Records show it was the second time in three years that Rowlett had been kicked out of River City for a violent outburst.

River City filed ‘special incident’ reports on the May 11 incident with Rowlett.

In an email to the I-Team, Fox wrote that River City wasn't commenting on any of the specific incidents mentioned in this story.

At the I-Team's request, ODRC said staff reviewed the incidents involving Walker, Middlebrooks, Ballard and Huber.

"Based on our review of the information you provided, it appears River City handled these incidents appropriately," according to ODRC's statement.

The I-Team requested copies of all emails, text messages and memos sent and received by McVey and Director of Operations Michel Oppy relating to all incidents last May.

River City claimed there were no memos and text messages, according to Hamilton County Assistant Prosecutor James Sayre, who wrote the response to the I-Team’s request.

The I-Team received three emails: one written by the senior resident supervisor on the Walker incident and two very brief emails McVey wrote to her about the incident.

River City insisted it “was not in possession” of any emails, text messages or memos Oppy wrote relating to any of the incidents for the entire month, according to Sayre.

At the three public quarterly board meetings attended by the I-Team since last July, McVey shared virtually only positive news and with few exceptions the board has never asked about specific incidents in the facility and how staff addressed those problems.

ODRC’s grant agreement with River City’s governing board expires in June.

“This is one that concerns me,” said Thomas.

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