November 30, 2021

Legislators to discuss number of jail staff

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 should have no part in determining the number of corrections officers in the county jail, said Sheriff Mark Helms, even though a resolution being discussed by the Legislature suggests they should.

“This is what the sheriff’s job is,” Helms said Thursday afternoon. “I have a background in it. They have none.”

A resolution calling for state legislation to allow county officials to work with the state Commission on Corrections to determine the staffing levels in the county presented during a county Judiciary and Public Safety Committee meeting Tuesday caught the sheriff and undersheriff by surprise. Other than one conversation with Committee Chairwoman Sandra Price (D-Harford, Virgil) earlier this summer, Helms said he had not heard from any legislators about the staff in the jail.

Price said Friday the resolution, which was largely taken from one that had passed in Putnam County, came about after Legislator Cathy Bischoff

(D-Cortland) raised questions about the status of hiring of corrections officers during a Personnel Committee meeting earlier this month. It was determined the number of corrections officers should be discussed Tuesday during the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee meeting.

Bischoff said in an email Friday that her inquiry had nothing to do with the proposed resolution. She said she was looking forward to talking to Helms about staffing, the jail itself and where the county stood on implementing the recommendations of a consultant.

The Vera Institute of Justice last year offered recommendations on how to safely reduce the jail population and the committee discussed a number of topics including how to execute Vera’s recommendations.

In an email back to Price and other legislators, Helms said the staffing levels couldn’t decrease for a number of reasons:

  • The pool of applicants for corrections jobs has been at an all-time low, Helms said, making it hard for him to fill the current 51 positions required by the commission.

“So, if I was to cut the number of working officers in the jail, there is no doubt the surrounding counties would gratefully take them,” he said in an email sent in July to Price and other members of the Legislature. “What will I do when my population rises in the upcoming months when COVID-19 is no longer an issue and the courts go back to normal session?”

  • Inmate numbers will rise again, Helms said. He said bail reform has caused some decrease — coupled with COVID-19 and courts being closed, the numbers have been low for several months. That will change, he said, when the courts reopen fully or close to fully again.

“My office alone has arrested more than 322 people during the start of COVID-19,” he said.

Before that, 136 people had been arrested. He said this means that there are 458 cases from just the sheriff’s office pending in the court system.

He said Broome County has seen a recent increase of 100 people in its jail.

  • The design of the jail is flawed, requiring more staffing than other jails.

“At this time, we cannot change the jail’s design and this is another reason why I wouldn’t suggest changing staffing levels now,” he said.

He said the county’s decisions seem to be largely defined by how they can save money, rather than understanding how he needs to operate the facility and ensure safety and security of the inmates.

“They know nothing,” he said. “To me it seems a little ridiculous.”

Helms said he still hasn’t heard from them following Tuesday’s meeting either.

“We still have a Legislature that doesn’t communicate,” he said. “That’s how this works I guess.”

During the meeting, Legislators voted 6-1 to move the discussion of jail staffing to the committee’s Oct. 13 meeting after hearing from legislators they wanted more time to review information and hear from Helms and Undersheriff Budd Rigg. Legislator Ron VanDee (D-Cortland) voted no.

Rigg, who attended the meeting, said he has always remained conscientious of the staffing level and that the last time the state did a manpower study, it wanted the county to have 54 positions, Rigg said, and he talked the state down to 51 officers.

“It’s not a financial decision as to the manpower, it’s a safety concern and nothing more than that,” Rigg said. “It’s about safety and security. That’s my expertise. I don’t believe it’s the expertise of any legislator to determine what staffing should be in a correctional facility.”

Helms also said he’s confident that even if the Legislature approved the resolution that the commission wouldn’t do anything with it.

Price said Friday that she hopes to sit down with Helms and Rigg to talk about staffing and see what role the Legislature might play in determining the staffing, along with the sheriff and state commission.

“The sheriff should always be involved,” she said.

She also said the county must be careful “not to take authority away from an elected official”— the sheriff in this case.