COXSACKIE — With construction of the new county jail underway, county officials had mixed feelings about the bold approach Albany County is taking toward incarceration.
State criminal justice reforms, which go into effect in January, are expected to keep about 90% of people out of jail prior to their court date.
On average, two-thirds of the incarcerated population are being detained waiting for their day in court, according to governor.ny.gov.
Albany and Saratoga county officials recently announced innovative responses to the projected population decline. Albany County's includes transitional housing for the homeless population and veterans in need.
The Saratoga County Jail will have a section for veterans and inmates struggling with addiction. The pod will be for inmates only, not for members of the public.
Public Safety Chairman William Lawrence, R-Cairo, said a jail is inppropriate for both populations.
“I have no problem with housing the homeless,” he said. “I just think other remedies should be employed first.”
Quality of life has to be considered, Lawrence said.
“[Municipalities] have an obligation to have a place for these people to reside, to train them so they can find employment and provide mental health services,” Lawrence said. “Jail is not quality of life.”
Greene County Legislature Chairman Patrick Linger, R-New Baltimore, said Albany and Saratoga counties are thinking ahead.
“Good for them,” Linger said. “I think it’s a smart move.”
Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple hopes other municipalities will catch on.
“This was the perfect opportunity,” he said. “We’re taking a building most people view as bad and doing something positive with it.”
Apple was already experiencing a high vacancy rate.
“I have 600 open cells and with bail reform, I’m expecting to lose another 50 to 90 inmates,” he said. “I have this huge building with a big vacancy. What can we do with it?”
Apple and his team transformed the jail into Albany County Corrections and Rehabilitative Services Center for just $10,000, he said.
“We took 100 cells and transformed them into small bedrooms,” Apple said. “We are changing lives for the better at a minimal cost.”
The rooms have a separate entrance, a wall that separates them from the rest of the jail and the fence line has been moved back accordingly, Apple said.
Each room is equipped with a TV, a toilet and a bed with linens, Apple said. All bars have been removed and replaced with standard doors.
“It’s as close to home as they are going to have for awhile,” he said.
During their stay, individuals may seek help for addiction, mental illness and employment training, Apple said.
“We want them to come, feel safe and seek some help,” he said.
Lawrence said he does not think the new Greene County facility could feasibly offer these services, he said.
“Our jail is going to be reasonably small,” he said. “The needs of the homeless are so much different than [inmates]. For veterans I feel the same way. They deserve to be treated better as well.”
“There is a lot more space available [in Albany],” Linger said. “They have 1,000 beds in multiple buildings. They can take a full building for [the homeless].”
The Greene County facility is not set up for that, Linger said.
“Our two male pods are for inmates only,” Linger said.
State regulations require the jail to have two separate pods for classification purposes, Linger said. The jail also has one female pod, bringing the bed count up to 60.
“If [the regulation] changes and if we have one male pod sitting there not being used, it’s worth looking into,” Linger said.
Sheriff candidate Pete Kusminsky agreed.
“It’s encouraging to see that Albany County and Saratoga County are making good use of their expansive facilities,” Kusminsky said. “Based on the size and the way Greene County’s jail is designed with classification requirements by the Commission of Correction, I do not believe that we would have the ability to close a pod, making it unlikely that we would be able to utilize the building in such a manner. If the ability arises where we had the space and if we would be permitted to do so, then I would certainly consider it.”
The county attempted to incorporate other services into the project and was turned down by the state Commission of Correction, Linger said.
“We wanted to do a mental health wing,” Linger said.
The wing would have been designed for individuals who need temporary hospitalization and would serve as an alternative to incarceration, Linger said.
“We were told it was not allowed within the jail,” he said.
The success of these types of plans remains to be seen, Lawrence said.
“What do you do when that space is taken by inmates?” Lawrence said. “Kick them back out on the street?”
Sheriff candidate Diana Benoit supports the idea, she said, although she would rather see programs for recovery and re-entry.
“I’m worried about setting up a place for the homeless population immediately adjacent and within a detention facility,” Benoit said. “I’m worried that it sends the wrong message and tone.”
Benoit disagrees with the size of the facility, she said.
“It is sad to know we are going into this knowing we have overbuilt our jail,” she said. “It seems strange to start thinking about what we are going to do with an overbuilt jail before it is built. I think the best thing is not to build a jail that is overbuilt and needs budget augmentation.”
The project is being funded by a $39 million bond from Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc at 2.49% interest and an $8.1 million contribution from the county.
Linger noted that the Commission of Corrections requires 10% of the facility to be vacant and that there will be about 10 special housing cells between the male and female pods.
“That brings us down to about 44 general housing cells,” he said in July.