November 26, 2021

Cortland County Jail population rising again

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.

Eighteen months after bail reform reduced crowding at the Cortland County Jail — and pandemic-related delays in the judicial process kept the jail population down — the jail’s population is rising and could soon top capacity, county officials said Thursday.

As the county courts reopen for in-person court appearances after more than a year of virtual appointment, Sheriff Mark Helms said at a meeting of the county Legislature’s Judicial and Public Safety Committee that he is concerned there won’t be enough space in the jail.

“When you hit the COVID pandemic, there were a lot of changes within the court system,” said Capt. Nick Lynch, who commands the jail. Bail reform meant that people accused of non-violent felonies did not have to post bail, which would keep numbers down, but the virus itself meant the jail also had to take precautions that functionally reduced its capacity.

“What I think we’re seeing right now is as things start to open back up, things are starting to catch up with individuals that have been on reform and feeling the impact of COVID,” Lynch said.

The jail has faced crowding issues since 1997, just seven years after it opened, but has faced additional capacity limitations because of COVID-19 safety regulations. The facility has 57 beds and has routinely housed additional inmates in a 30-bed dormitory. However, the dormitory has been unused during the pandemic as a safety precaution.

County legislators once considered building a new, 150-bed jail to accommodate the inmates, going so far as to acquire 74 acres in South Cortland in 2016 and hiring an architect to design a facility. But the cost ran to the tens of millions, and projected renovations to the existing facility to allow more inmates was similarly expensive.

Legislators were debating what to do about the problem in 2020 when the pandemic struck.

“We’re still under COVID mandates, procedures and protocols ourselves, so that limits at a certain capacity,” Lynch said. “The blocks that we’ve assigned were once for only five days, now up to 14 days. So those protocols make sure no one can potentially expose the general population — you can have an outbreak in that cell space there, but then I only have a small amount of space to put anybody else.”

Men and women cannot be housed together, and some inmates must be separated or require additional supervision, Lynch said. So the jail may reach its practical capacity long before it sees 87 inmates.

At the beginning of the year, the jail had a steady number of around 40 inmates, Helms said. Thursday morning, it housed 55 men and five women.

“It’s coming back quickly, and what I mean by that is the courts are stopping the video arraignments we’ve been doing, coming back in-person, and I just don’t have the space to hold the people coming in,” Helms said.

Helms has resumed shipping inmates to neighboring counties’ jails to ease with crowding, which was routine before bail reform and the pandemic.

“Regulations that we have to comply with, the visual doesn’t necessarily mean that we have cells available,” Lynch said. “And when people look at bail reform and they look at numbers down at the jail, it’s really the layout of the facility. That’s the biggest hindrance to us, is the ability to create further separations that were required by law.”