CATSKILL — The state Commission of Correction approved Greene County’s proposal to build a new 80-bed jail in Coxsackie, but recommended a larger facility.
The commission sent a letter to county officials with the decision last week. The letter was addressed to Greene County Sheriff Greg Seeley on Nov. 20 and was signed by commission Chairman Allen Riley.
The county’s former jail on West Bridge Street in Catskill was closed April 20 after it was deemed unsafe. County lawmakers approved the proposed jail project Sept. 19 with an amendment capping the facility at 80 beds.
The jail is expected to take three years to complete with the county taking out a $39 million bond with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The commission strongly recommended the county revisit the size of the planned jail.
“The commission has serious concerns as to whether the 80-bed design, which was recently reduced from 96 beds, will meet Greene County’s long-term capacity needs without having to potentially construct additional bed space shortly after opening.”
If changes are made to the jail plan, the project will have to go back to the legislature, Greene County Administrator Shaun Groden said Nov. 1.
“I don’t see us going back to the drawing board,” Legislator William Lawrence, R-Cairo, said Wednesday. “I think we need to stick with the design we’ve got and hope for the best.”
If the legislature decides to enlarge the jail, the project would have to go back through all committees and then to the full legislature, Lawrence said. This could delay the project another three to six months.
In the event the jail project does return to the legislature, Lawrence said he would not support changing the size.
“We’ve gone through enough turmoil,” he said. “We assured them [the commission] we would keep our numbers down with ATI [Alternatives To Incarceration]. If we do exceed capacity, we’ll have to board out. Based on recent trends, we’ll be able to manage.”
The jail’s recent population levels have, at times, reached 59 inmates, according to the commission’s letter.
The project’s size reduction involved reducing the female bed count from 24 to 16. Two male inmate pods are slated to have 32 beds each.
“Recent figures show the female population to be as high as 11, which could create significant challenges in meeting classification requirements in that housing unit,” according to the commission’s letter. “Depending on the female population at the time the new facility opens, the potential exists for having to board out females to other, local correctional facilities.”
The decrease in beds will make it harder for the new jail to meet vacancy requirements, according to the commission.
“A nationally recognized benchmark of a 10-15 percent vacancy rate generally permits correctional facilities to operate within their state’s classification laws, depending on demographics,” according to the letter. “Accordingly, the potential exists for the new Greene County Jail to become operationally overcrowded when the inmate population exceeds 68.”
From 2008 to 2017, the county jail’s highest inmate population for each year was 77, 83, 94, 100, 87, 102, 92, 96 and 78 inmates, respectively, according to a report generated from the Greene County Sheriff’s Office. The jail’s lowest inmate population for each year, from 2008 to 2017, were 53, 53, 60, 57, 51, 69, 55, 59 and 44 inmates.
The state commission does not feel the smaller jail size will save the county money in the long run.
“While the elimination of 16 beds in this current design may realize some one-time construction cost savings, the commission strongly recommends reappraising whether such savings will be lost to potential boarding and transport costs of operational overcrowding,” according to the letter. “Future boarding and transport costs due to operational overcrowding could far exceed such savings, particularly as the bed reduction results in no staff savings.”
The commission’s approval will expire in 18 months, according to the letter.
“If the project does not commence within this time frame, it must be resubmitted to the commission for approval,” according to the letter.
The county hopes to put the project out to bid in January or February as officials are working against a bit of a deadline, Lawrence said, referring to the county’s obligation to apply for the bond from the USDA in March to secure the 3.25 interest rate.
“I’d hate to lose that rate,” he said.
Bail reform and Raise the Age legislation are also expected to reduce inmate numbers, Lawrence said, and the jail will be eligible for double-bunking after the new facility is open for a few years.
Legislator Lee Palmateer, D-Athens, voiced strong support for a larger jail.
“I would support a larger, appropriate-sized jail,” he said. “It’s foolhardy to build the jail the way we intend to build it. There’s a good likelihood we’ll exceed the capacity right away and often. Our boarding costs could exceed the savings of building a smaller jail.”
Palmateer criticized the legislature for designing the jail based on political motivations instead of the needs of the county.
“The leadership — and I use that term loosely — thought they could pacify the public with the smaller size,” he said. “They didn’t have the leadership to make it the proper size, with the bigger price tag, because it would be too controversial. It’s not a political question. It’s how big should it be to accommodate the foreseeable inmate population?
“It’s a matter of analysis and logic. It turns into a political question when politicians making decisions are more concerned with getting elected.”
Palmateer said Legislator Larry Gardner, D-Hunter, who proposed the amendment to set the reduced 80-bed cap, anticipated the jail getting denied by the state commission.
“He wanted the public to perceive him as doing his level best to save the public money, but didn’t think the commission would approve that size,” Palmateer said, adding reducing the facility was a move to take the heat off of Gardner and lawmakers to build a larger, more expensive jail.
Gardner felt 80 beds was an appropriate size, he said, but that the commission would think it was too small.
“I was surprised it was approved,” Gardner said. “I thought it would be declined.”
Gardner is not in favor of making the jail any larger unless it is state-mandated.
“If we have a choice in the matter, then I’m against it,” he said.
Lori Torgersen, D-Windham, would not support the increased jail size, she said Wednesday.
“I would absolutely not support a larger jail,” Torgersen said. “The state CoC has no data analysts on staff. They should not be making population projections. That should be left to PhD researchers.”
Criminal justice reforms will continue to reduce inmate populations, Torgersen said.
Legislator Michael Bulich, R-Catskill, was reticent to speak about resizing the jail, without having reviewed the final site plans.
“I’m remiss to say whether I’m for or against it,” he said. “I would probably not vote for a larger jail because it would mean more money.”
Legislator Patrick Linger, R-New Baltimore, is in favor of increasing the size if the issue is revisited.
“I thought from the beginning 96 was the right number for us,” he said. “We needed to compromise to get the bond approval... I do think we should reconsider. If 80 is not the right number for us, we should go back to 96.”