This coming Nov. 6 election will see a three-way contested race for Tompkins County Sheriff. Incumbent Ken Lansing will be running on the Independence line, former undersheriff Derek Osborne will be running as a Democrat after winning the September primary, and former Ithaca Times reporter Josh Brokaw will be running on the Truthsayers line. In order to learn more about each candidate and where they stand on pressing local issues, Tompkins Weekly asked all three candidates to submit columns on three different topics. This is the third and final column from each candidate. For this week’s columns, the candidates were asked to explore the topic of: What do we need to solve the jail problem?
“How do we solve the jail problem?” is the question we sheriff candidates were asked to respond to in this column. The utopian idealist in me responds with “Let’s get rid of the jail.” While it might be unlikely there’s a time in your or my lifetime when there aren’t people who need to be locked up for everyone’s safety, I think remembering that the jail is a symptom of a sick civilization is helpful for everyone who works to serve their fellow people. Service providers – law enforcement, healthcare, journalists, social workers, etc. – should be keeping a vision of the good society in mind, remembering that their job is not just to follow the rules and react to everyday situations, but to create a place where everyone can be safe, happy, and free.
That said, everyone agrees that the Tompkins County Jail needs some serious renovations to be a safe place for people to work and stay. The air quality is bad, according to a recent letter to the county legislature from a corrections officer. The plumbing is hard to maintain. The Sheriff’s Office needs to make it easy for facilities maintenance to make any and all improvements.
I’m hearing from people who volunteer at the jail that banishment from meeting with inmates can come down for what would seem innocent actions: giving a hug, or showing an inmate a paper heart one brought in a Bible because that piece of paper is “contraband.” Restrictions on bringing in books, too, I am told, come from one incident when some amount of a drug was smuggled in a book binding. We should have a library at the jail, beyond the required law library; people should be able to bring books in as well. There’s a balance to be struck between access to inmates from community members, and safety in the building. Given the stories I’m hearing, it seems we need to move that balance more in the direction of encouraging access from well-meaning people who want to give time to people who need a friend, rather than discouraging their visits.
Moving the civil offices from the public safety building to another facility could be a short-term solution to the “program space” problem. That could open up space for more meetings, groups, skills training, yoga, music, and dance classes, and whatever other education and entertainment our community can provide inmates
Finally, a wider range of medically assisted treatment options for people going through withdrawal should be provided. Treatment should be provided not only for opioids but for other drugs, even nicotine. There’s no need for people to say about our jail that they just “give Kool-Aid and tell you to wait it out,” as I heard at a forum this summer. Making people miserable is no way to help them turn their lives around.
Unfortunately, there is no “permanent fix” for the jail population. As long as people keep breaking the law, we are going to need a jail. We have implemented several programs that try to deter recidivism and make a positive impact on those people that are currently incarcerated. Programs are scheduled throughout the week. Some of the programs we offer are:
1. Men’s and Women’s Alcoholics Anonymous: Program geared toward dealing with alcohol addiction. 2. Narcotics Anonymous: Program focused on assisting people in overcoming narcotics addiction. 3. Opportunities, Alternatives, and Resources: Assists inmates with various outside life needs after incarceration.4. Jail Garden Program: Inmates are able to cultivate and raise their own garden. Vegetables are used inside the facility.5. Re-Entry Interviews and Consultations: Tompkins County Mental Health Commission runs this program.6. Test Assessing Secondary Completion (replaces GED Program): Assists inmates in obtaining their High School Equivalency Diploma.7. WRAP (run by Tompkins County Mental Health Commission): A Wellness Recovery Action Plan.8. TALK: is a therapeutic mental health group that allows people to talk freely about their concerns and issues.
9. The Mary Bogan College Initiative: Assists inmates who take the initiative to register and prepare for college.
10. Cornell Cooperative Extension/Re-entry: Assists inmates in re-acclimating themselves to society.
11. Ready, Set, Work: Helps inmates to prepare for a place in the workforce (resume prep, interviewing techniques, etc...).
12. Tompkins Learning Partners: Assists with inmates studying for High School Diploma.13. Religious Services: Community Faith Ministries, Golden Key Ministries, Holistic Hardware, Reverend Whyte services, Catholic Mass, Female Community Faith Partnership, Male Community Faith Partnership. 14. Male DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy): This is offered by our Mental Health Counselor.15. Male and Female Creative Writing: This is offered by our Mental Health Counselor.16. BOCES: Youth Education Program, Adult Education Program, Men’s Conflict Resolution, Women’s Conflict Resolution, OSHA 10, Food Safety Program, First Aid/CPR. 17. Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services (Drug/Alcohol/ Vivitrol Program) – CARS representative is in twice per week. 18. COTI Project (Center of Treatment Innovation) – Drug and Alcohol evaluations.19. Department of Social Services – Working through drug courts to get inmates into rehab. The work that this team does on a daily basis is so vital to trying to foster a successful community and keep people from reoffending. We want to see these programs flourish and continue. We are working together to protect the community we love, inside the jail and outside.
One of the greatest challenges facing the Sheriff’s Office and county legislature is the state of the Tompkins County Jail. The facility is dilapidated and outdated. It’s a depressing workplace for officers and staff. Additional alterations to the physical structure would just put band-aids on old problems.As I see it, we have two options. We could build a larger jail, reducing the expense of boarding out inmates to other jails and satisfying the demands placed upon us by the NYS Department of Corrections. Or we could reduce the number of inmates by pursuing alternatives to incarceration for people who don’t really need to be in jail. I believe the second option is not only the best solution to overcrowding, but it also offers the best chance of preventing repeat incarceration. Our legislature has already made good progress in this area.
The cost of building a new jail is significant. Otherwise, I would love nothing more than to oversee construction of a new facility, one that isn’t larger, but better-designed. The present jail’s antiquated linear-style floor plan, with cellblocks placed along long corridors, puts a strain on an already understaffed workforce. Modern direct-supervision facilities, with housing units surrounding a centralized officer station, provide a safer environment that would permit fewer staff to supervise more inmates. Our jail also lacks space for positive inmate programs offered by agencies like the Alcoholism Council and Offender Aid and Restoration.
Some will say that jail isn’t meant to be nice, and if you can’t do the time don’t do the crime. I get it. I’ve spent a career enforcing laws that have led to incarceration for many offenders, and there will always be a need for it. However, true public safety requires that we also seek to curb the behavior that leads to arrest and incarceration. By not taking this approach, we are simply arresting and re-arresting the same people while accomplishing nothing. This is particularly true for people who are mentally ill or addicted to drugs, who wind up in jail not because they’re a threat to society or deserve to be punished, but because there are no other immediate solutions to their problems.
When I retired from the Sheriff’s Office four years ago, I spent time working on re-integration efforts with federal inmates pending release. Many of them had committed horrendous crimes and had served many years in prison. Most of them desperately wanted to re-enter society as productive community members and struggled to make it happen. Sadly, I often felt that the cards were so stacked against them that I worried they would give up and return to a life of crime. The sense of hopelessness experienced by some was unfathomable; a symptom of a cycle of incarceration, release, and re-arrest that doesn’t benefit any of us.
The reality is that most inmates will eventually be released. Why not address the underlying issues that would otherwise lead them to renewed criminal activity? I firmly believe we have an incentive to improve the odds of success for inmates who want to turn their lives around, and that this goal should drive our search for solutions to the problems with our jail.
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