This post was written by Keri Blakinger, who writes a blog about prison reform.

Ithaca, N.Y. — Following months of debate, local lawmakers voted in June 2014 to authorize $910,000 in bonds for a new addition to the Tompkins County jail.

The expansion debate pitted local law enforcement and other officials, who called the expansion necessary, against dozens of activists, who said more space in the jail would not deal with the root of the jail’s overcrowding problems.

In 11 questions and 11 answers, here’s everything you need to know about the expansion of the Tompkins County jail and why some opposed it. Click on the question to find your answer.

1 – Why are we expanding our jail?
2 – What does the addition entail?
3 – Why were people protesting?
4 – Why did other people support the new addition?
5 – Who voted against it?
6 – Who came up with the idea to expand the jail?
7 – How much does the new addition cost?
8 – Will it solve the problem?
9 – How does our jail situation compare to those of other counties?
10 – Where is the jail?
11 – This is a lot of text. Can I just watch a video?

(Did we miss your question? If so, email me at jstein@ithacavoice.com.)

1 – Why are we expanding our jail?

Simply put: We have run out of room. And that’s getting expensive.

Tompkins County taxpayers spent $244,000 in 2012 and $246,000 in 2013 “boarding out” inmates – paying, in other words, for other jails to hold those we could not. It costs $85 a day to board out an inmate.

The current jail was built as a 33-bed facility in 1987. Shortly thereafter, it was modified to house 72 inmates. Currently, it can house up to 93 inmates thanks to state variances. (If the state decided to revoke the county’s variances, though, the jail could only hold 73 people.)

In 2012, the average daily jail population was 90. But even when there are empty beds, the jail sometimes has to board out inmates because of restrictions on where some inmates can stay.

For instance, the jail usually allots 11 to 13 beds for female inmates. If there are 20 female inmates, the remainder will need to be housed in another county, even though there may be enough empty beds in male housing units. Juvenile offenders require their own housing units, so they are often boarded out even when the facility is well below capacity. On average, eight inmates were boarded out to other counties per day.

According to inmate advocates and former inmates, another problem with boarding out inmates is that it often limits their ability to see their attorney, makes it difficult more them to stay in touch with or receive visits from family members, and causes them to lose access to the revolving bail fund operated in Tompkins County by Opportunities, Alternatives, and Resources (OAR).


Back to the questions

2 – What does the addition entail?

The indoor part of the expansion consists of adding seven beds in the area that is currently used for indoor recreation. Repurposing the indoor recreation space means that inmates will have no viable recreation option in inclement weather, so an outdoor recreation shelter will be built. (Inmates are required by law to have access to recreation.)

 

The specifics of the recreation shelter have been redesigned several times in order to find a solution that both preserves the sense of being outdoors and offers sufficient coverage in inclement weather. Ultimately, legislators selected the option that would leave the eastern side of the recreation yard – the side facing toward the airport – as it is now. The new structure will be placed on the western side of the yard and inmates will be able to move freely between the two sides. In inclement weather, metal siding will be pulled down to cover the open east-facing side of the shelter, and inmates will stay inside the unheated shelter.

Back to the questions

3 – Why were people protesting?

There is a group of people, known as the Stop the Tompkins County Jail Expansion Coalition, that has been very vocal about opposing the expansion. Its members have spoken at many Public Safety Committee and Tompkins County Legislature meetings and they have also held protests. They have cited a variety of reasons for opposing the expansion, including:

  • Concerns that it will not actually solve the board-out problem and that the county will incur the considerable cost of construction yet still end up having to pay to board out inmates.
  • Concern that the county has not sufficiently explored alternatives to incarceration (ATIs) and that, if it did so, the number of people in jail could be reduced, thus making the expansion unnecessary.
  • A fundamental belief that the construction of more jail cells will lead to a higher number of people being incarcerated.

Back to the questions

4 – Why did other people support the new addition?

The recurring cost of boarding out inmates is one reason for supporting the expansion. Proponents point out that the expansion will eventually pay for itself in board-out savings. Even though the expansion will not completely eliminate boarding out – especially of females and juveniles – it will reduce the need for boarding out.

Inmate advocates, such as OAR, have expressed support for the expansion because it will reduce the amount of boarding out that is necessary and thus reduce unnecessary hardship on inmates, many of whom have not been convicted of a crime.

Back to the questions

5 – Who voted against the bond resolution to pay for the expansion?

The legislature initiated plans for the jail expansion project in September 2013. After months of discussion regarding the specifics of the plan, in June of 2014, the legislature finally voted to authorize up to $910,000 in bonds to pay for the expansion. The bond resolution passed by a vote of 11-3, with legislators Leslyn McBean-Clariborne, Kathy Luz Herrera, and Carol Chock all voting against it.

Back to the questions

6 – Who came up with the idea to expand the jail?

That’s a little unclear. In September, Sheriff Ken Lansing said that the expansion was being considered at the request of the State Commission of Correction (SCOC). However, in March, head jail administrator Captain Bunce was quoted as saying, “This expansion was inspired by an idea from the undersheriff. This was during a meeting with [SCOC] personnel.”

Back to the questions

7 – How much does the new addition cost?

The exact numbers have varied slightly based on the different design proposals, but all have been in the vicinity of $900,000. However, the debt service on the bonds will be $65,000 a year over a 20-year period, which means that the total cost of the project plus the bond interest will be $1.3 million.

Back to the questions

8 – Will it solve the problem?

Not necessarily. Because of where the newly converted housing area is located, it can only be used to house males. Thus, when there are too many female inmates, the county will still need to board out the excess females.

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9 – How does our jail situation compare to those of other counties?

Tompkins is not the only county facing problems with expanding jail populations. Although national incarceration numbers peaked in 2009, many county jails are still experiencing increases in their average daily populations. Neighboring Broome and Cortland counties are both in the process of dealing with expansions, as are numerous other counties throughout the state.

 

Because of its low arrest rate – 51st out of 57 upstate counties – as well as its ATI offerings, Tompkins County has been able to maintain a very small jail in relation to its county population. The vast majority of upstate counties – all but one or two – have higher jail capacity to county population ratios. So, although we are facing a jail expansion, we have forestalled the need for this discussion much longer than most other counties.

Back to the questions


10 – Where is the jail?
The jail is off Warren Road, by the airport.


11 – Can I just watch a video?
You sure can. Here’s one from WENY News:


Back to the questions

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.