Press-Republican

December 1, 2013

Regional jail may be a hard sell

DENISE A. RAYMO
Press-Republican

MALONE — The state has promoted creation of regional jails to save counties money, but that might not be practical for Franklin County to pursue.

“We’d have to explore how anxious the counties around us are going to be about a regional jail,” Sheriff Kevin Mulverhill said.

“Essex County Jail is less than seven years old, St. Lawrence County’s is less than five years old, and Clinton County’s main jail is old, but there have been a number of capital projects done, and it is not near capacity.”

It’s worth exploring, the sheriff said. 

“But I don’t know how far it would get.”

AGING INFRASTRUCTURE

The topic has been mentioned by Franklin County Manager Thomas Leitz during budget hearings as a wave of the future, but the counties surrounding Franklin County have recently invested in newer facilities.

Clinton County finished the most recent upgrades to its jail in 2006, raising its capacity to 300 inmates.

Essex County opened its new 120-bed facility in 2007, and St. Lawrence County opened a 186-bed jail in 2009.

Franklin County has an old building with a litany of problems, according to a report legislators received this year from Darrin Rubadeau, buildings and grounds superintendent.

The jail was built 20 years ago with the capacity to hold 85 inmates. But after a number of variances granted by the State Commission on Corrections, the jail’s maximum capacity has grown to 127.

Rubadeau said boilers, chillers, the heating and air-conditioning systems, air handlers, electronic gates, generators and emergency lighting are all past their useful lives, which makes them harder and more expensive to maintain and repair as parts grow scarce.

ROOM TO GROW

Mulverhill said there is room for an addition to the current footprint, but enlarging the inmate-confinement area may not be enough.  

Support departments would also have to be enlarged, among them the kitchen, visitors room and consultation rooms where inmates meet with their attorneys.

That gives county officials even more to consider as they look at future needs.

“I’m not opposed to a regional jail, but I just don’t know how many partners we’d have,” Mulverhill said.

He said the neighboring counties are paying off bond notes for their improvements, “so I imagine it would be difficult for them to pay those off and then sign on for a regional jail.”

BOARDING INMATES

Essex County Sheriff Richard Cutting agreed money plays a role, but in a different sense.

“We make a good amount of revenue by boarding inmates from Franklin County, the U.S. Marshal’s Office and a few others,” he said. “Our investment is here, and we’re still bonding this facility.

“We opened ours in ‘07 with the facility designed to take us through the next 30 years, so I don’t think the county would consider participating in a regional jail.”

He said some Western New York counties use a combination jail/penitentiary where the county keeps all pre-trial inmates, and those who have been sentenced are sent to the prison.

“But again, I don’t really see Essex County doing that,” Cutting said.

Attempts to reach Clinton County Sheriff David Favro and St. Lawrence County Sheriff Kevin Wells for comment were not immediately successful.

LIMITED SPACE

Mulverhill said Franklin County’s jail was the last one in the state designed with indirect inmate supervision — set up so correction officers look at the inmates through a window and are not in the common area with them.

“Every jail built after that is designed for direct supervision, where the supervising officers are in the dorms with the inmates,” he said.

He said half of Franklin County’s 127 housing beds are dorm-style, and the rest are individual cells.

County inmates are separated into several groups: male and female, civil or criminal cases, pre-trial and sentenced, minors and adults, and those with mental-health and rehabilitation needs.  

Gender-segregation problems are mounting in Franklin County because of limited space.

Mulverhill can house a maximum of 14 women, but as of last week, he had 19 in custody.

Five were being boarded out of county because there was no room for them here, he said, which can add up when counties charge at least $85 a day per inmate.

PRACTICAL HURDLES

The proposed July 2014 closure of Chateaugay Correctional Facility has hastened talk among some that the county could acquire that site and use it for a county or regional jail.

Mulverhill said he has not been given a directive by the County Legislature to learn more by contacting the State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision about the prison site or the State Commission on Corrections, which oversees all county jails.

County law says each county must have a jail, but a recent opinion from the Attorney General’s Office allows inmate transfers to a regional site, so each county does not have to operate its own facility.

Even so, there are practical hurdles to using a state prison for local incarceration, the sheriff said.

“It’s an option, but it’s a different type of setting than a county jail,” he said. “For instance, there is a separate mess, and you’d have to staff that. At the County Jail, we feed the inmates in the dorms.”

That reduces inmate movement between buildings, where confrontations with staff or each other could increase and pose more of a danger.  

“And extra staff would be needed. There would be mandatory posts and other staffing issues.”

Email Denise A. Raymo:dratmo@pressrepublican.com