October 22, 2021

Jail inmates return after leaky roof fixed

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Crews are shown working on the roof of the Cortland County Jail in Cortland in February 2019. File photo.

Five months and more than $1.5 million after a leaky roof forced evacuation of the Cortland County Jail, inmates are back at the facility — although some remain boarded elsewhere because the state reduced the number of inmates the jail can house.

Inmates began arriving Tuesday after state Commission of Correction staff members Robert Cuttita and Elisha Hamilton toured the jail, assessing the repairs, Cortland County Sheriff Mark Helms said in a news release.

“During this visit, commission staff verified that all elements outlined in the commission’s May 22, 2019, correspondence have been satisfactorily addressed,” the release stated.

Repairs and upgrades cost more than $900,000, and boarding the inmates at other facilities cost $90 per inmate per day since Jan. 24, when a 12-foot seam opened in the jail’s roof and let in stormwater. Between January and May 1, the county spent $656,650 to board the inmates at other jails. Helms said the boarding cost adds up to more than $200,000 a month and does not include transportation or other costs.

In February, the state Commission of Corrections detailed work needed to repair all water damage, including the floor in dormitory space used to house 30 inmates, wood or metal studs, drywall, light fixtures, wiring and more.

Helms also had to verify other items, such as indoor air quality, meeting Health Department standards and electrical systems work. On top of that, Helms said other work was completed to take advantage of the inmates being away.

Repairs to the roof, totaling around $700,000, were finished March 26.

In March, Undersheriff Budd Rigg said having the inmates away was a “golden opportunity” to do work that needed to be done “even if we decide to stay or even if we decide to move.”

The county Legislature is considering options to expand the jail or build a new jail.

Other work includes:
• Cell Block A repairs: removing existing sliding door devices, installing new panels in cell doors and a new control panel and caulking, painting and final cleaning at a cost of $138,000.

• Repairing old, leaky pipes.

• Adding 16 stainless steel shower units at a cost of $70,000.

Jail capacity has been reduced to 89 inmates, down from 93, which had been allowed with a state variance from the state Commission on Corrections. Helms said that variance was denied May 21, although he did not elaborate on why.

“Unfortunately, there are more inmates than we have beds so some inmates will still need to be boarded out at this time,” Helms said.

“I am extremely proud of how my officers conducted themselves during this time of change,” he added. “They did everything needed with expertise in a situation that none of them had ever dealt with before.”

He also thanked the various sheriffs whose jails he sent inmates to, including Broome, Cayuga, Oneida, Tioga and Tompkins counties.

Helms said he is looking forward to getting back to a “somewhat normal routine,” although he reminded people in the news release that “unfortunately the repairs didn’t do anything to assist with the overall size of the jail or the shortage of space including our overall population.”

Vera Institute lays out details of jail study

From staff reports
Some actions Cortland County can take to reduce its jail population it can take on its own; some will require the state to act. Still others will require the cooperation of judges or other entities.

The Vera Institute of Justice was in Cortland Thursday to discuss in depth a study it completed that would reduce the county’s jail population — often above the 89-person capacity of the jail — by diverting inmates to other programs before they’re incarcerated or speeding trials, parole reviews and other processes that add to jail stays.

The study’s directors met with dozens of political, judicial and law enforcement officials and residents to explain how it expects its efforts could reduce the jail population by half.

“Unless there’s a long-term strategy in this county — and frankly every other county in this country and in this state — we’re just going to have people coming through the jail again and again if there aren’t community-based resources and services to actually adequately address mental- health and substance-use needs,” said Insha Rahman, director of strategy and new initiatives for Vera.

However, the study was based on 2017 data, and the county began in 2018 taking some of the steps that Vera suggests.

Among the suggestions are:
• A central arraignment facility and increased pre-trial and diversion services, such as to drug rehabilitation programs.

• A hub court to handle probation violations and other affairs that can require jail stays while waiting for smaller municipal courts.

• Pre-trial release without bail for misdemeanors and most non-violent felonies, something the county does routinely now.

The Cortland County Jail has been at capacity, or above, since 1997. County policy makers have sought ways to reduce the crowding for years, including consideration of building a new jail. The current facility was originally built with 57 beds, but can now house 89 — down from 93 — inmates with a special permit for a 30-bed dormitory and what is now a two-bed state variance.

Either building a new jail or adding to it will be expensive — a new 150-bed jail would cost at least $50 million — calling into question whether sinking money into the existing facility would be worthwhile.

The county contracted with both Vera and Rod Miller of CRS to do studies to provide more information. The Miller study — of the jail’s future space needs — is due at the end of this month.