People always picture the U.S. Marshals tracking down fugitives on warrants and hauling them away.
But that’s only half the story.
“We would never shut down courts to do the warrants, but we would shut down warrants for the courts,” said Donna Faff, Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal.
The most consuming duties of the U.S. Marshal Service of the Northern District of Ohio are its general operations. The Marshals house and handle all federal defendants and prisoners once they are in federal custody.
“If FBI or DEA arrests somebody, they bring them to us,” Faff said. “The minute they walk in the door, they’re our responsibility.”
Except most people never hear that part of it. Handling federal prisoners is a daily occurrence, but Faff noted the cases people hear about are the ones garnering the most media attention, like the Amish beard-cutting suspects or former Cuyahoga County commissioner Jimmy Dimora.
Faff has served with the Northern Ohio Marshals since 1996, and she has been the Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal for 13 years. In that time, the duties she is required to juggle have only grown.
“The best way to describe my job is as an air traffic controller, between the transports, medical appointments, and housing,” Faff said. “That’s important on big days when we’re going to arrest 50 people.”
Not that many people ever see the inside of Cleveland’s federal building, but what even fewer see are the inner workings of the building. The jail cells where inmates are kept are literally right across the hall from the deputies’ desks. An internal elevator brings the inmates up from a garage to the cells on the Marshals’ floor. From there, the Marshals can use the elevator to deliver each inmate to a federal court on a different floor.
Cleveland’s 12 federal judges hold court on the floors surrounding the Marshals’ offices in the federal courthouse. Faff must make sure each judge is staffed with a court security officer and two deputies. The deputies are always required to handle an inmate. Faff can take deputies off warrant hits on the street and assign them to court as needed.
The need for Marshals in the courtroom is fundamental. On April 21, a suspected gang member, on trial for racketeering, rushed a witness on the stand as his trial was beginning in Salt Lake City, Utah. A Marshal had to open fire, ultimately killing the suspect.
But these instances are incredibly rare.
“It’s not too often in this district we’ve had problems with any prisoner,” Faff said. “They look at how we conduct ourselves. We address them with professional respect. They show us respect, we show them respect back.”
But the Marshals are prepared for troublemakers.
“First time we have a problem prisoner, we remove him from the group and put him in isolation. Eliminate the problem so he doesn’t instigate the other prisoners,” she said.
And when a prisoner acts up, a visit from Faff is like getting called into the principal’s office.
“If there’s a problem in the cell block and I have to go back there – I don’t know them, but they know me,” she said. “If there’s a problem, they want to talk to Donna.”
By and large, Faff said inmates recognize that the federal system is very efficient and all business. In the 12 years that the Marshals have been in the new federal building, there have only been two fights in the jail. Faff said that professional atmosphere has developed in Northern Ohio over the years.
“We’ve gotten deputies over the years and they look to the other deputies. We got a good group of guys and they know this is how we operate in Northern Ohio. Everything here is pretty controlled,” she said.
Fortunately, most prisoner problems the Marshals deal with are far less hazardous.
“Probably one of biggest headaches is medical issues,” Faff said.
By overseeing general operations, Faff must approve and coordinate all medical treatments for prisoners. On rare occasions, that can even include dental procedures. But more unorthodox and costly treatments need to get approval from the Marshals headquarters first.
“In one instance, three patients in wheelchairs had serious health issues and they had to book flights for them,” Faff said.
Some medical issues can directly impact a trial. Faff said the Marshals recently handled one inmate who needed to be DNA-tested for Down syndrome because the diagnosis could have been used in his defense.
Faff must know about all medical treatments in advance and approve them because they will get billed; she also handles the budget for the Marshals.
As it is with most law enforcement agencies lately, Faff said that their budget is tight, which can impact how they schedule their transports for court; the Marshals take prisoners to and from the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown on a nearly daily basis.
For the system to be able to process and transport inmates, it requires lots of communication between various branches of local and federal law enforcement. Faff must maintain contact with Ohio’s U.S. attorneys,
as well as representatives with the FBI, DEA, Cuyahoga County’s Justice Center, and the Ohio State Penitentiary.
But the communication between the agencies was not always ideal.
“When I first came here, different agencies, we didn’t communicate,” she noted.
The communication did not come overnight either. Since Faff came to Cleveland in 1996, the Northern Ohio Marshals went through three general operations supervisors before she assumed the position 13 years ago.
“Now everybody knows who to call,” Faff said. “It’s stability in keeping deputies here that they know they can call if I’m not here. And it’s not a high transition turnover. People come here and they want to stay and retain the knowledge and experience.”
But being a Deputy Marshal means communicating with more than other agencies.
“Being able to deal with a variety of people, from the judge, who everybody should respect, and the U.S. attorneys and defense attorneys, down to the families,” she said. “I know if I got arrested today, my parents would have no idea what to do. So I try to take the time to help.”
But that is not surprising. Faff noted that everyone with the Northern Ohio Marshals handles themselves in the same way.
“We’ve come a long way since I came here in ’96,” she said. “Very public image now. When the warrant guys have their raid jackets on that say ‘U.S. Marshal,’ I think you get a little bit more respect out on the street. The prisoners know we’re not messing around.”
That professional attitude not only gets noticed by prisoners, but by Faff’s colleagues.
“General operations is the backbone of the U.S. Marshals service and Donna Faff is the backbone of the business,” said U.S. Marshal Pete Elliott. “She does an outstanding job and hardly gets the credit she deserves. She’s been juggling many responsibilities for many years, and she’s phenomenal at what she does.”
But Faff does not do it for the credit.
“General operations is our primary function,” Faff said. “If we don’t take care of that, everything else is not going to happen.”
For Faff, it is clear that “everything else” includes activities outside the office.
“We all get along, we’re all very social, whether we’re on golf leagues together or going to grab a beverage, and trying to get other agencies involved in golfing or bocce ball or 5K runs. Things where you won’t always talk about work,” she said.
When asked if she has to organize these outings, Faff replied, “Yes. I’m the social director.”
[Look for Colin McDermott’s weekly series about the U.S. Marshals of the Northern District of Ohio.]