October 22, 2021

Unlocking a jail solution

Space, flexibility issues vex county despite studies

S.N. Briere/staff reporter

Cortland County corrections officers leave and enter the jail in this Cortland Standard file photo from Jan. 2020.

Cortland County legislators will probably wait until the end of 2020 to decide what to do with the jail — build new or renovate, a question it has been debating since the jail first faced crowding in 1997.

Instead, the legislature will circle back to a question it’s been debating since work with Latham-based architect firm SMRT stalled in September 2018: How many beds does the jail need? Two studies in 2019 were meant to answer the question — one from the Vera Institute of Justice and another from consultant Rod Miller of CRS — but left the county with vastly different projections.

An advisory committee on bail reform and the jail detailed in a report in December that the jail already has multiple flaws. It’s poorly configured, so even if the jail has enough beds, it has insufficient space for programs to keep inmates from coming back.

At its heart, the county must answer these questions:

  • How many beds does its jail need, and how must space be configured to house different types of inmates?
  • How much space does it need to provide room for programs to help reduce recidivism?
  • Can the 28-year-old jail accommodate both needs?

The current facility has 57 beds, but has routinely housed 90 or more inmates with a special permit for a 30-bed dormitory and what is now a two-bed state variance.

Building a new 150-bed jail would cost at least $50 million. The cost to renovate could be just as high.

Bail reform’s effect

New state criminal justice laws regarding bail will reduce the number of inmates housed in the jail, but how much of an effect it will have remains unknown for now.

The other question that needs to be answered is how much space is needed to provide even more programs for the inmates, in particular programs that would reduce recidivism.

The advisory committee recommended the county delay action until the new legislature, which was seated Wednesday, decides which core facility issues it wants to tackle.

“From these discussions, it is anticipated a list of priorities could emerge, which will serve as a guide for a decision about possible renovations of the current county jail facility,” the report states.

Sheriff Mark Helms said he is OK with waiting to see how new state laws could effect the jail population, but after that he said he will no longer tell the legislature what he wants, but rather what he must have.

“You’ve done the studies, I’ve done my stuff, we know where we’re at,” he said. “Now, I don’t need you to tell me what you think, I’m telling you now I want this. Does that mean a new jail? Not necessarily. If we can figure out a way to work it in here, but I’m going to tell you what I recommend we do and then it will be up to them to see what they can do to do it.”

Bed needs studies

The state’s bail reform eliminates cash bail for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. However, it will likely be months before the effect of the new bail law is known, according to the report and county Legislator Cathy Bischoff (D- Cortland), chairwoman of the advisory committee.

“Therefore, future bed predictions are left for future discussions,” the report states.

Two needs assessments from 2019 suggest two drastically different pictures of the space need.

A report by Vera suggests bail reform will reduce the number of people in the county jail by around 36%. If the county were to also implement Vera’s recommendations for pre-trial services, central arraignment, alternatives to incarceration and a hub court to streamline the judicial process the population could be reduced another 19%.

The institute’s projection was going from around 90 inmates to 45.

However, Helms has repeatedly said Cortland adopted most of the reforms before Vera’s analysis.

“We’re close but we’re not 100%, so that’s why you’ll see the numbers go down,” he said.

The jail housed 53 men on Friday, and four women.

He also said people who stay in the jail before conviction have those days count toward their sentence, so a reduction in pre-trial stays would be offset by an increase in post-conviction time.

“The only way to better the numbers the way we’re going is to just never put people in jail,” Helms said. “If that’s where we’re going, then just say it. I don’t agree with it. I don’t think it’s a good thing. I agree, not everybody needs to be in jail, but I also would tell you to keep the public safe not everybody can be out.”

New spaces, new money

Vera’s plan would require new spaces, new people and new money.

It recommended adding centralize arraignment, a hub court and practices in the community to streamline the judicial process, but also prevent people from entering the jail to begin with.

The county is adopting centralized arraignment — including having off-hour arraignments at the jail.

The advisory committee recommended several changes to reduce the number of inmates:

  • Develop a communication plan with a number of sources, including the state Office of Court Administration to have a case manager in the county reach out to a defendant about “legal and other resources.”
  • Have both a defense attorney and case manager at court hearings, and share information and coordinate with alternatives to incarceration services.
  • Create a task force to develop a strategic plan on how to continue handling criminal justice reforms.

However, the legislature has not set a date to discuss which recommendations to pursue.

Different view

Vera’s report vastly differed from Miller’s, which said the county would need space for 152 beds by 2039 — 63 more than it has now and three times as many as the facility was designed to hold.

“He didn’t account for bail reform,” Bischoff said. “It’s like two different realities.”

She also said proposed state legislation, likely to be discussed this year, regarding minor violations for parolees could decrease the number of inmates in the jail.

Helms said the county must be realistic about what renovations could actually be done and what it could cost.

More space for everything

The jail has four housing units:

  • A 30-bed dormitory area typically used to house inmates who do not show behavioral problems.
  • A 10-cell unit split into two levels of five cells to house violent offenders. It is the most secure housing unit.
  • Two housing units with 20 cells each designated for people with a “moderate to serious charge history and/or behavioral and/or addiction issues.”

The jail wasn’t originally built to house women or separate inmates dealing with health problems, such as drug addiction of mental health issues.

Rearranging the cells could pose a problem when it comes to classification of inmates and those who need to be separated because of drug, mental health or behavior issues or due to criminal charges.

“You can’t put everybody in the same spot and that’s what people don’t get,” Helms said. “We have people with different needs and different problems and maybe different concerns and the way the state makes us work with classifications you just can’t do that, that makes it hard and a lot of people don’t understand that.”

Programs, programs

But it isn’t just the cells that pose a space issue, but the space for programs.

“Even with the most generous assessment, existing program space is totally inadequate for 30 inmates never mind 60 inmates,” the report stated.

The jail is 38,400 square feet, but only two rooms, totaling 780 square feet, are available for programs. That space is already used for 20 programs, and the advisory committee suggests more be added for new programs.

“Providing services within the county jail is key to enabling an individual to make better choices for themselves once that person has rejoined family and his/her community,” the report stated.

Where that space will come from is the big question.

“You need several spaces because you only have so many hours in a day,” Helms said. “Right now we have so many things, I couldn’t add another program. That doesn’t mean I don’t have people that would offer to do a program, I just don’t have any place to put them.”

The report also stated a reduction in the inmate population wouldn’t help.

“There isn’t any extra space and I need more,” Helms said.

Renovations as an option

Bischoff said to determine what is the more fiscally prudent and better choice — build new or renovate — the county must first see design and cost estimates.

“We kind of already know what a new jail would look like,” she said. A new 148-bed jail would be around $50 million or $60 million, but renovating the existing jail may not be easy, either.

However, Bischoff said the only way to get good renovation proposal is to determine the number of beds and other core issues.

“Before we do any physical planning we would need to come to an understanding with the county on what that bed number would look like,” said Art Thompson, a senior architect with SMRT.

The recent changes to the bail law have potentially stalled the county from again making a decision, but now Helms, who once pushed for a decision, said a delay could be beneficial.

“I think right now, in my mind, we’re going to stall whether we want to or not just because of the times we’re in,” Helms said. “Let’s see what this (bail reform) is really going to do.”

Some ideas for the facility have already been mentioned, he said, including adding another housing unit onto the jail.

“Even if we can make it work, you just increased your staff,” Helms said. “Everybody com- plains about retirement and all that other stuff, so that’s usually what people are trying to get away from.”

“The cost would kill us just in what the increase in officers would be,” he said. “It’s not going to make it a safer jail.”

The median salary for a correctional officer in Central New York is $59,510 a year, show data from the state Department of Labor. Staffing one additional post around the clock would take about 5 1/2 full-time equivalent employees, or more than $327,000 a year, plus benefits, uniforms and other costs. That adds up to $9.8 million over 30 years, if there’s no inflation.

Thompson said no matter how many beds the county wants, the plan is and has been to make the facility efficient. Whether the jail can renovated efficiently is a big question.

“There is no housing in the current building that could be effectively reused,” Thompson said in September 2018 during a tour of the jail.

Helms equated looking to renovate the jail to a big box store like Walmart moving into unoccupied retail space.

“They move in there, what do they do? They knock it down and they make a new one,” Helms said. “Why? Because once we start moving things around, it’s going to cost us more than if we just got rid of it and started again. It’s no different here.”

Helms said the county must be realistic about what it can do with the existing facility.

“We’ve just been sitting here spinning our wheels and gone nowhere for four years,” Helms said. “It might in the long run be a good thing our governor threw us a real curveball with this bail reform. No matter whether you like it or you don’t like it, we’re going to have to deal with it.”

Bischoff is certain legislators will have a design concept by the end of 2020.

“I don’t think we’re being unrealistic,” she said. “I’m committed. I want to keep working with the team to shepherd this through.”

“There’s no appetite to tear down that building,” she said.