As the nation is facing an unprecedented public health crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic, life in most US prisons and jails is nothing short of terrorizing.
At the Tompkins County Jail, however, the number of incarcerated people is at an all-time low. As of March 30, the count was 27. Of these, seven are state parole violators. Despite Gov. Cuomo’s announcement to release people with technical parole violations, jails that are not facing overcrowding are not obligated to release parolees. Because its official capacity is 85, the Tompkins County Jail is able to spatially isolate incarcerated people. The Sheriff has announced that newly admitted people are met by officers wearing PPE gear and must be cleared by medical staff. If people have to leave their cells, they are asked to wear a mask. There is a contingency plan to shut down an area of the jail should a staffing shortage occur.
Ironically, the release of people who might otherwise be incarcerated has produced a reentry crisis in Tompkins County. There are people who are released into homelessness, with local shelters full. Reports from Richard Rivera, who is essential personnel for the Southern Tier AIDS Program’s syringe exchange program and Program Coordinator for OAR’s Endeavor House, a transitional home for people returning from jail or prison, informs me that people seeking reentry are facing daily food insecurity, homelessness, lack of water and propane, among other essential needs. Thankfully, Ultimate Reentry Opportunity (URO), OAR, and Decarcerate Tompkins County have partnered to create a reentry donation drive to have food and essentials delivered by Rivera, who is equipped with PPE gear and follows safety protocols.
Tompkins County Jail is faring better than other prisons and jails in this crisis because of decisions made in 2004 and 2016 to invest in alternatives to incarceration (ATIs) instead of expanding the jail. Legislatively, this approach is a total anomaly in rural upstate New York. Tim Joseph led the Legislature to stand up to the State Commissioner of Corrections (SCOC) and refuse to build a bigger jail in 2004. When jail expansion was again proposed in 2016, a jail study commissioned by the County as well as major resistance from grassroots coalitions like Decarcerate Tompkins County led the Legislature to again reject the expansion option and further expand ATIs, diversion programs, release on recognizance tickets, and counsel at first appearance. The average daily census of the TC Jail in 2012 was regularly in an overcrowded 80s and 90s; by 2019, it had been reduced in half, to the 40s.
Decarceration efforts lessen the impact of overlapping public health crises: Coronavirus, mental health and substance disorders, racial profiling and racism, and the environmental hazards of jails and prisons. I want to commend the shared efforts this community and legislators have made since 2004 to go against the trend of jail expansion. It’s certainly paying off now. Let’s continue to refashion our world to create life-sustaining economies rather than death-producing ones.
Paula Ioanide, associate professor at the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity at Ithaca College