October 25, 2021

County mulls study that calls for building new jail

‘This didn’t help them’

Shenandoah Briere/staff reporter

A Cortland County sheriff’s van backs out from an entrance to the jail July of 2019 in this Cortland Standard file photo.

Don’t expect Cortland County legislators to make a decisions on what to do with the overcrowded jail until after November’s elections, Sheriff Mark Helms said.

“I got a bad feeling they’ll want to wait on making a decision until January,” Helms said Monday, after officials received a needs assessment late Friday by Rod Miller of CRS, Inc. that said the jail will need 152 beds by 2039 — 63 more than it has now and three times as many as the facility was designed for.

“This didn’t help them,” he said. “In my opinion it made it worse.”

“The bottom line was folks wanted to put off doing much of anything until we had both studies, now we have those,” said Legislator Michael Barylski (D-Cortlandville), chairman of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. “Then we need to go back and take a look and say, can we get the services and the number of beds we need by refurbishing the existing jail?”

If so, great, he said; if not, the county will have to look at other options.

There are no viable options, Miller said, even if the county follows all the recommendations of a recent report from the Vera Institute of Justice, which included a number of steps to divert people from ever going to the jail. Miller included those steps in his calculations.

“I’m surprised he recommended we build a new jail at a new location,” said Legislator Paul Heider (R-Cuyler, Solon, Truxton), the vice chairman of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. “A jail bed assessment was what we asked for, so I wasn’t sure if that was just his opinion he threw in there.”

Miller was hired in September for up to $8,700 to determine how many beds the jail may need in coming years. That assessment would help legislators decide whether to build a new jail, which could cost more than $50 million.

The previous assessment was done in 2007 and recommended the county plan for 140 beds by 2025 and about 230 by 2035, however six of the seven models on which it based its estimate were proven too low over time.

The existing jail was built in 1992 with a planned capacity of 50 inmates. It has been crowded since 1997, but can hold up to 89 with special permission from the state. It had 72 inmates this morning, with another 10 boarded out.

Miller’s report states the county should look at building a new jail because the existing one doesn’t meet current needs. Its biggest issue is space, not just the amount of space but how it’s configured.

“We don’t have the space to move people around,’’ Helms said.

Miller notes that an indoor exercise room and three program rooms are no longer used for their intended purposes because they were needed to house inmates, “leaving only one multipurpose space that may be used for visiting, programs and other activities.”

Other issues also include:
• It has insufficient space to separate people with mental or health issues and by criminal classification to ensure safety.
• The jail lacks sufficient separations to house female inmates.
• Short-term holding space is inadequate.
• The current jail’s design creates blind spots and makes movement inefficient.

And there’s no way to expand at the jail’s current site to fix those problems.

“There is not room on the current site to effectively and efficiently expand the current jail,” Miller said. “The case for constructing a new jail has been made repeatedly since 2003.”

Helms said the county has to stop using the excuse that he just wants a new jail.

“What (personal) benefit do I have in building a new jail,” Helms said. “This is for the better of the county, this isn’t for me. There’s going to come a time where we’re going to have to bite the bullet and do something new.”