It started with a leak.
Rain on Jan. 24 melted snow on the roof of the Cortland County Jail, and the water seeped through to the inmates below. By 8 a.m., 2 to 3 inches covered the floor of a dormitory facility that can house 30 inmates.
The inmates were moved, but the leaks spread, too. Inmates were moved again. “Until finally it got to the point were we had to shut down all the housing units with the exception of the booking area, holding cells and our control area,” said Undersheriff Budd Rigg. Sixty inmates were sent to other counties’ jails.
On Friday, one inmate remained in a facility built for 50 — and a capacity of about 92, including a 30-bed dormitory space, with permission from the state. Cortland County is paying about $90 a day, per inmate, to keep them elsewhere. That’s about $5,500 a day now, but expect it to go up if the facility isn’t repaired soon. At that rate, the county will burn through its annual budget to board inmates elsewhere in about 10 weeks.
Then there’s the cost to fix the jail.
The leaks, and the repairs they’ll require, come at a difficult time for the county. The jail is crowded and the county is considering a number of solutions, including expanding the facility opened in 1992 and building a new one.
Either solution will be expensive — a new jail would cost at least $50 million — calling into question whether sinking money into this facility would be worthwhile.
However, county consultants seeking to estimate the county’s future jail needs are urging legislators not to rush a decision until they have the data, even if that means a short-term solution for the leaky roof.
BLOCKS SHUT DOWN
State officials were in the jail the day it was evacuated to evaluate the problems.
“They’ll be compiling a report,” Rigg said. “That’ll outline what they saw and what steps it’ll take.”
The jail runs on a maximum facility capacity, Rigg said. Maximum facility capacity is the number of people that can be housed in units within the jail.
The state determined there were life-safety issues in certain areas of the jail that were not putting inmates in jeopardy, he said, but it took away the jail’s maximum facility capacity.
The dorm could have 30 beds, Blocks A and B were each at 10. Those are all down to zero. “For us to get those numbers back they’ll provide us now with a list of actions that have to be done before we can apply to get those housing units back up and running,” Rigg said.
Cortland County Sheriff Mark Helms thinks the jail will be able to get the maximum facility capacity back. “We may have to go through some things,” he said.
Helms expects a report from the state Commission of Correction either Monday or Tuesday detailing what needs to be done to the jail to get inmates back.
First order of business — stop the leaking. “We have to get the roof replaced,” Rigg said. Fixing the other damage would make no sense until the leaks are stopped.
County officials are considering replacing the entire roof.
After the roof is complete, the air-handling system will be inspected as will the electrical system, Rigg said. “I don’t see that being very time consuming.”
A contractor would need to inspect the scope of damage; engineers would need to plan a solution. Approval would have to come from the Legislature, which has its next regular meeting Feb. 28.
“The actual work would take 14 days,” Rigg said.
Rigg hopes to keep the entire process to six weeks. “Otherwise we would have to wait for spring when a roofing company could do a tear off,” Rigg said.
Compared to building a new jail or expanding on the current one, Helms didn’t have a timeline. “I couldn’t give you a date because we haven’t pulled the trigger and gotten that close,” he said. “We couldn’t do it in six weeks that’s for sure.”
Helms does expect it may take up to two months before inmates can be moved back into the jail.
A NECESSARY WASTE
Legislators don’t want to rush into a long-term solution just because of the emergency.
“We cannot afford a new jail, so I think we can afford to fix this one up,” said Budget and Finance Committee Chairman George Wagner (R-Marathon, Lapeer). “You build a $55 million jail, you can board out a lot of prisoners for that money over 30 years.”
He said a $2 million windfall because the county underestimated sales tax revenue in 2018 could help fund repairs.
Legislature Chairman Kevin Whitney (R-Cortlandville) who has favored building a new jail, said the repairs must be made, even if it’s a short-term solution.
“This is a tragic waste of money but our backs are against the wall,” Whitney said. Even if the county were to build a new jail, it would still need to fix the roof before the old jail could be repurposed or sold.
Any action — short-term or long — awaits a state report on what must be done.
The state Commission of Correction was on site Jan. 24, said Jill Spadaro, a commission spokeswoman.
“Two commission staff members were deployed to the facility that day and provided technical assistance in identifying safety concerns and facilitating the transfer of individuals to nearby local correctional facilities,” she wrote in an email. “That evening, commission staff addressed the Cortland County Legislature and provided an overview of the safety and security concerns, as well as the commission’s role in approving necessary repairs and the eventual restoration of the facility’s capacity.”
The commission supported Helms’ decision to remove most inmates. “The exact schedule to reopen the entire facility is contingent upon a thorough damage assessment and identification of necessary repairs by an engineering firm, and a post-repair assessment by the commission to ensure the facility is safe to house inmates,” she wrote.
After that report comes out, Whitney says legislators will be better prepared to make a decision.
“This problem has been coming and it’s been made known,” Whitney said. “And still Legislators have chosen not to go forward so just because this has occurred, I’m still not sure it’s going to result in any sort of forward movement for a new jail. I don’t foresee that.”
COSTS ADD UP
Still, delay will cost. Whitney said Wednesday he plans to meet with county finance officials to see how long the county can afford to board out inmates. At the moment the cost is about $170,000 a month, but that depends on how many inmates the county must care for, and the leak came during a seasonal lull. The cost could go up.
Either way, the boarding out budget line has just $400,000. That’s about 10 weeks before it goes dry.
And that doesn’t consider the repair. Rigg said Tuesday that rough estimates showed it would cost no more than $700,000 to repair the roof, but he expects better numbers next week.
The county has about $300,000 set aside for roof work, but heating, ventilation and electrical systems were effected, and the floor of the gymnasium that housed 30 inmates has buckled.
“The faster we get this work done … the more money we actually save the county,” Rigg said.
SHORT- VS. LONG-TERM
The problem, and reaction to it, runs much deeper than the latest crisis, said Michael Barylski (D-Cortlandville), chairman of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. He ran for election in 2017 because he wanted to be part of the jail decision.
First, he said, the county must ascertain how many jail beds it needs over time. That will largely dictate whether renovation is an option or a new jail is required.
“Right now our goal has to be to prevent further damage and get the jail back open at the most reasonable cost possible,” Barylski said.
Rod Miller, president of CRS Inc. and Insha Rahman and Sandra van den Heuvel of Vera Institute of Justice — consultants helping the county assess its needs — wrote the county Wednesday urging legislators not to rush into a hasty decision because of the leak.
“We urge you to resist the temptation to hurriedly make a decision that is not well-informed by the data, and by the research that our organizations are conducting for you,” the letter states.
An accurate bed count that any future facility will need is crucial, they wrote, and “a deeper dive into how the justice system works, and identify opportunities for new programs, innovations, and changes.”
A new roof, however, will not solve that problem, Rigg said, it simply buys time. “We’re putting a new roof on an inefficient jail,” he said. “We know that.”