Guest Opinion: Beyond the Beds – Inside the Tompkins County Jail

By Keith Hannon

Keith Hannon

While 2018 is shaping up to be a busy year for the Tompkins County Legislature, perhaps no issue will attract the attention of our entire community more than the county jail.

While the CGR study declared bed expansion will not be necessary, there were several recommendations made that will require significant investment from taxpayers. Considering how much is on the line, it was clear a true appreciation for this issue required going beyond the reading of a document and into the jail itself.

I was met by Captain Ray Bunce, who proceeded to guide me through the same steps a new arrival would experience if they were being admitted to the jail. The big topic of the day was drugs. Drugs as a problem in our community, as a gateway to the jail, and services needed to ensure people get appropriate treatment.

Captain Bunce and another officer told me when they see a news story about an overdose, odds are they know the person. The numbers back this up. Misdemeanor drug arrests for the county are up 66 percent between 2012-2016 (87 arrests to 144) and drug felony arrests are up 160 percent (25 arrests to 67) over the same time frame.

The names are familiar to the jail staff because, typically, the person has been sent to the jail multiple times. According to the CGR study, in 2015 64 percent of discharged inmates returned to jail within a year of being released. A Bureau of Justice study found 77 percent of drug offenders returned to jail within five years of their release.

The CGR study revealed a high volume of inmates struggling with mental illness and/or substance abuse. Yet the CGR study showed that in 2016 the average time between being booked at the jail and entering treatment was 65 days. As it stands, inmates are forced to detox amongst the general jail population, with modest support from a small, sub-standard medical station.

Much like drug dependency, mental illness must also be properly identified and treated. The National Alliance of Mental Illness reports that 1 in 5 adults experience an illness and half of all chronic mental illnesses begin at age 14. The county should consider the creation of a mental health court that will properly evaluate offenders and assign them to a facility where they can begin receiving the tailored care necessary for improved outcomes worthy of the investment.

In Allegheny County (Pennsylvania), the formation of a mental health court resulted in only 10 percent of their mental health court graduates facing a criminal conviction within three years of release. According to the Department of Justice, the national rate is 47 percent. Just to our west, Ontario County recently established a mental health court, while also creating a veterans court. Ontario County estimates that of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and suffering from PTSD, half will end up in the criminal justice system.

We must also think about the jail staff forced to attend to inmates struggling with dependency and mental health disorders. The corrections officers are not trained to administer proper treatment and asking these officers to be the sole source of support for inmates battling through detox or a mental illness is not fair to the officers or the inmates.

The combination of drug offenders and those suffering from mental illness returning to jail and abandoning rehab centers, and the jail lacking the space and resources for appropriate detox services, emphasizes the need for a detached rehabilitation facility at the jail itself. While there are those in our community who may feel this is another excuse for locking people up, the recidivism rates for drug users is so severe, offering only voluntary rehab outside of the jail is not proving to be productive.

If we’re serious about helping our neighbors suffering from drug dependency and mental health issues, we may need to step out of our comfort zones to invest in the treatment that has an actual chance at helping them. I don’t like people going to jail and I support investments in at-home monitoring, bail funds, and other alternatives to incarceration that keep jail populations low. But I also don’t like 44,000 people dying every year from overdosing or 10 million Americans living with co-occurring mental health and addiction disorders. If creating space at the county jail is a viable way to help these members of our community, I’m willing to put it on the table for consideration.
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Keith Hannon is running for the District 5 seat on the Tompkins County Legislature. An expanded version of this guest opinion can be found at