ITHACA, NY – Jails in just about every county eventually face a problem — too many inmates and not enough beds. For several years, Tompkins County has pushed programs that focus on reducing the prison population, rather than investing to expand its jail.

Last month, the New York State Commission of Corrections put the county in a difficult position. They announced that they would be revoking a variance that the county has on its jail that functionally gives the Tompkins County Jail 18 extra beds, expanding its capacity from 82 to 100.

The County hopes to appeal the decision. However, if the Commission’s decision holds, the county will be forced to choose between two expensive options:

  • Board out — that is, send to other jails — excess inmates. The cost of boarding out 18 additional inmates would be around $558,000, in addition to the $255,000 the county already spends on board-outs.
  • Expand the jail. The state has pushed for a 45-bed addition, which would likely cost $10 – $12 million.  At that price, County property taxes would increase by $1.2-$1.4 million, or as much as 3%, to cover annual debt payments and the cost of new staff.

A resolution which passed unanimously during the Aug. 16 meeting of the Tompkins Legislature, will fund an $85,000 study in two phases. The first part will study the present and projected demographics of the jail population, and assess the impacts of the county’s alternatives to incarceration programs. The second part will analyze cost-effective options to accommodate the projected jail population.

The $85,000 study comes just two months after the approval of a $100,000 jail reentry program aimed at helping inmates reintegrate to society.

Legislator Jim Dennis explained that the purpose of these studies is to demonstrate to the state that Tompkins County is committed to solving the jail overcrowding problem. An entourage of county officials will be meeting with the Commission of Corrections later this month in the hopes that they can convince them to restore the 18-bed variance.

“If you build it, they will come”

For many Tompkins legislators, expanding the jail is something of a moral red line.

“We have been able to keep — with our drug courts and other programs — we’ve been able to keep our jail population very stable for 20 years, even though the population of the county has grown,” said Legislator Martha Robertson.

“Even though 20 years ago, so-called experts of jail population said, ‘Oh my goodness, by the year 2005 you’re going to have 150 inmates in your custody.’ We don’t, we have in the neighborhood of 90. I think from that measure it has absolutely been a success, we’ve saved millions and millions of dollars and improved peoples lives, enabled people to avoid the damage of incarceration,” she continued.

Legislator Anna Kelles agreed, saying that statistically speaking, jail-time does more harm than good, by isolating people from their families, costing them their jobs, and removing them from their support systems. She also echoed a concern that has been brought up before — the idea that if the jail is expanded, it automatically creates pressure to fill it.

“‘You build it and they will come,’” Kelles said, putting a twist on the line from Field of Dreams. “You build a bigger jail, eventually you’ll fill it. You’ll need another jail, you fill it. You need another jail, you fill it. There’s something powerful about saying that we’re at the capacity that we feel comfortable with and we’re going to put our emphasis on reduction.”

Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.