Don’t Build a Bigger Jail…just stop filling it

By Aurora Rojer

The Tompkins County Jail is overcrowded. It was built to hold 64 people, but, thanks to a variance from the State Commission of Corrections (SCOC), for the past few years it has been allowed to cram in an extra 18 people. This was the case until July 2016 when the SCOC hit Tompkins County with an ultimatum: the variance is gone; Tompkins County must either expand the jail or lower the prison population.

Can you guess which way the county is leaning?

In September, the county legislature formed a jail study committee to explore options for dealing with the expiring variance. They hired a third-party company, Center for Governmental Research (CGR), to perform a study to determine the feasibility of adding an extra 45 beds to the jail for an estimated cost of $20 million. CGR, despite having promised “transparency” and “accountability,” have, of course, been totally shady. They never posted the documents on their website that they said they would and allowed the county to begin hiring new corrections officers in preparation for the expansion that hasn’t technically been approved yet. Meanwhile, community members under the name Decarcerate Tompkins County have been organizing around a few questions: would they really build 45 beds if they didn’t plan to fill them?; do we want to expand our jail population by more than 50 percent?; can’t we, as a community, find a better use for $20 million?

Art by Lucas Whaley and Aurora Rojer

Many respond that if we have that many criminals, we really do need to find a way to keep them out of our community. But in Tompkins County, 74 percent of people in jail are unsentenced. That means that they are either waiting to learn their sentence or haven’t even been tried yet (so much for innocent until proven guilty). According to the New York Criminal Justice Agency, one in five defendants charged with non-felony offenses are not convicted, and of those convicted, 80 percent do not receive jail time as punishment. So, for most of these individuals, their time pre-sentence is their only time in jail, and just because they couldn’t afford to pay the pricey bail.

Those most economically disadvantaged are the ones in jail, and their time there further exacerbates this inequality. It only takes a few weeks locked away to lose your job, apartment, and mental well-being. Everything in jail must be bought from the commissary, which naturally has overpriced products like travel-sized toothpaste for anywhere from $3.50 to $4.50. Only twice a week at a different time from visiting hours can a family member bring money to the incarcerated individual. If the incarcerated individual needs more money, they are forced to use an ATM, provided by the commissary vendor, that charges $3.00 per transaction. An hour’s worth of phone calls costs $25 plus an extra $12 in fees. Indeed, all communication with family members is difficult. In our jail, family visits are limited to just twice a week, for no more than an hour. Visits must be scheduled by phone during another limited time slot (7 – 10 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday, plus an extra 9 a.m. – 2 p.m. Sunday), and are at the discretion of the officer on phone duty. No one is guaranteed a visit. So, not only are incarcerated people unable to work, but they are also forced to spend ridiculous amounts on petty fees while suffering isolation from their loved ones, all without ever

having been found guilty.

Prison Policy Initiative

The first and most obvious step to lowering our jail population would be bail reform. It doesn’t sound very exciting, but it has the potential to make a huge difference, both to the individuals incarcerated and to the county, which would no longer need to expand the jail. It wouldn’t be setting out into uncharted territory: New Jersey recently overhauled their bail system. Since January 2017, judges have been able to use risk assessment to determine whether a defendant is actually a danger to the community who needs to be incarcerated before trial. They have found that most defendants are not: from January 1 to February 14 2017, New Jersey judges saw over 3,600 cases and authorized pre-trial detention for only 14 percent of them. Bail reform alone could undoubtedly lower our own county’s jail population back down to 64.

But Decarcerate Tompkins County knows that bail reform is not enough; why are these people, who are disproportionately poor and people of color, being arrested in the first place? The county could use that $20 million of public funds (which would only cover the cost of building the facility, not even the necessary maintenance and staffing) for alternatives to incarceration that try to deal with the root of the problem: most of the offenders are arrested for drug, alcohol, and mental health problems. All public health officials have recognized that jails and prisons are not adequate treatment for these health issues. Tompkins County could instead invest in heroin injection clinics (already under discussion, thanks to Mayor Svante Myrick), methadone clinics, wet shelters, dry shelters, homeless shelters, halfway houses, and more. Some advocates of the jail expansion claim that beds will be used for detoxing, but Decarcerate Tompkins County believes that jail is the wrong place for dealing with personal health issues, particularly this one in which a nurse is available only one day per week. Instead, we should have a community clinic, open 24 hours a day, which would provide detox supervised by healthcare professionals rather than corrections officers. Indeed, Ithaca already has plans to build an alcohol treatment center downtown, funded not by taxpayer dollars but rather by a grant received by the Alcoholism Council. More resources dedicated to treating our community members’ needs would go a long way towards decarcerating the county.

But even if formerly incarcerated people are able to kick their addictions or get the mental health support they need, there are very few opportunities waiting for them outside the jail’s gates. Finding housing, a job, and transportation from one to the other is difficult for anyone, but is compounded by the fact that employers and landlords discriminate against the formerly incarcerated. If our community wants to ensure

that people who get out of jail and prison stay out, we need to provide support in meeting these basic needs. Ultimate Re-Entry Opportunity, another local initiative, seeks to do just that by making partnerships with community members who can provide housing, transport, or jobs.

“Mass incarceration” is a term now commonly heard in today’s political discourse. We all know America’s got a prison problem, and that it’s racist to the point of representing a “new Jim Crow.” According to the Prison Policy Initiative, we have more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 901 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 76 Indian Country jails, as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories. And, according to the ACLU, America represents just 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its inmates. This has not always been the case: our prison population has absolutely exploded since the early 1970s. It’s great that this is common knowledge now, and even people like Hillary Clinton and Newt Gingrich are recognizing that we need change. But when mass incarceration is talked about at a national level, it too frequently sounds like a numbers problem: X percentage, X million dollars, etc.

What this discussion leaves out is the dehumanizing nature of reducing incarcerated people to percentages in a pie chart. Mass incarceration is a huge, systemic problem caused by top-down reforms. But even though we need the people in positions of power to support changes, the only way that we can re-humanize our population and truly change the system is to bring punishment, treatment, and prevention back to the community. Decarcerate Tompkins County is about stopping a $20 million jail expansion. But beyond that, it is about fighting at a grassroots level to change how our community conceptualizes and addresses incarceration.

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