Onondaga County jail. Credit: Chris Libonati | libonati@centralcurrent.org

The state agency that oversees correctional facilities is urging Onondaga County to review “critically-important issues” before moving ahead with its plan to close the Jamesville Correctional Facility.

The New York State Commission of Correction weighed in on the county’s proposal to close Jamesville in a December letter addressed to the sheriff’s office.

The letter came on the heels of the announcement of the planned closure by County Executive Ryan McMahon and then-Sheriff Eugene Conway. McMahon and Conway cited staffing issues at the facility as the primary reason for the closure.

They said staffing has hurt the county’s ability to get defendants to court hearings in a timely fashion, to the point that it could be in violation of a 2014 court settlement.

With jail populations down in Onondaga County, McMahon and Conway argued that closing Jamesville would allow them to move corrections officers downtown, where they could increase efficiency.

In the commission’s letter, Chairman Allen Riley (the former Madison County sheriff) outlined several facets of the county’s proposal that would require approvals. The corrections commission confirmed it sent the letter, but declined to answer detailed questions from Central Current.

“While the New York State Commission of Correction understands the staffing shortages experienced by the Corrections and Custody departments,” the letter says, “there are critically-important issues that necessitate a thorough review as part of the decision making process.”

Sheriff Toby Shelley, who was sworn in less than a month after his predecessor made the announcement about Jamesville, has vocalized his concerns about the merger. He said one of his concerns is about state rules for classifying defendants. For example, Shelley said, rules prohibit jailers from housing defendants classified as having been sentenced in the same area as those who have been classified as not yet sentenced.

The corrections commission also noted that the issue of how defendants are classified and housed would need to be addressed.

The Onondaga County Legislature will review the proposal to close Jamesville, but the commission has the authority to regulate the process, according to the laws that established the commission.

The Legislature’s public safety and facilities committees are expected to meet next week  to discuss plans to close Jamesville, according to the legislators who chair the committees.

Legislator Brian May, who represents the Legislature’s 1st District, covering parts of Lysander and Van Buren, said he welcomed the Commission’s input.

“It’s to our advantage to have gotten that letter and to understand correction’s concerns,” May said. 

State outlines requirements for Jamesville closure

If Onondaga County merges its two facilities, the Syracuse jail would add 139 incarcerated individuals to its current total or 397, the commission chairman wrote in the letter, dated Dec. 13.

The downtown jail has 665 beds. That means the percentage of occupied beds would jump from 59 to 80%, according to the commission. 

The jail does not have enough “sub-day” housing areas, or rooms with tables and chairs, wrote Riley, the corrections commission chairman. That situation could lead to future overcrowding, he said.

Any increase in the jail population could also affect compliance with solitary confinement regulations. The state’s rules require those segregated from the general population to get seven hours of time out of their cell, Riley wrote. 

The letter also laid out several requirements for moving ahead with the closure of Jamesville. They include:

  • A plan for continuity of medical care for all those incarcerated at Jamesville.
  • A training plan for all corrections officers who would then become deputies at the jail.
  • A plan for pre-transfer orientation for all those incarcerated.
  • An outline of all pre-transfer paperwork for each incarcerated individual.
  • The timeline for transferring incarcerated individuals from Jamesville to the jail.
  • A plan for how incarcerated individuals would be transported from Jamesville to the jail.
  • A plan for how the county would outfit the cells at the jail for new incarcerated individuals.
  • A plan for medically re-screening incarcerated individuals and issuing clothes, linens and hygiene items.

Shelley said while it may seem like there are 250 open beds, some of the classification requirements can cut away at that number. A small number of incarcerated individuals sometimes have to be separated into a larger area, reducing the number of open beds. 

“There’s a lot to it,” Shelley said. “Just because you have 600 beds and only 450 inmates doesn’t mean you actually have 150 open beds.” 

Shelley said he met with two members of the commission on Friday. The commission’s director of operations Terry Moran gave Shelley a copy of the letter at the meeting, he said. 

In the letter, the commission requested a status report from Conway, sheriff at the time, about the potential closure. Shelley said the members of the commission told him they never received a status report. The commission did not respond to a question asking whether it received a status report from Conway.

A spokesman for the County Executive McMahon said his office did not receive a copy of the letter until Monday, when Central Current asked them about the letter.

What’s next for Jamesville Correctional Facility?

County legislators will begin to decide whether to close Jamesville in the coming weeks.

The proposal will come before the Legislature’s public safety and facilities committees next Tuesday. Legislature leadership will then determine whether the proposal is moved into the ways and means committee, where Legislators can decide whether to move the proposal to a vote, according May. 

Shelley cannot attend the next public safety committee meeting, but plans on sending members of his leadership team to brief legislators about how closing Jamesville would affect the sheriff’s office, Legislator Mark Olson said. Olson, who represents the 10th district, which includes Manlius, Fayetteville and Minoa, is the chair of the public safety committee. 

Shelley said he hired John Ball, a former administrator at Jamesville and former undersheriff in Madison County, as a part-time consultant to help the sheriff’s office present at the committee meeting.

Shelley and Olson have discussed having a committee meeting at Jamesville if the proposal does not go to a vote in early February. 

Olson said he’s looking for more information about the ripple effects of a potential closure, including:

  • How a potential closure could affect corrections officers at Jamesville, who might lose seniority if their jobs were moved to the downtown jail.
  • How a repeal of reforms to bail laws could affect population at the jail and whether it could lead to eventual overcrowding.
  • What the county’s liability might be if it does not increase staffing at the jail and can’t more easily transport incarcerated individuals to court.

“I have concerns on all fronts,” Olson said. 

May said he’s concerned with “what’s not happening” because of staffing issues. He rattled off a number of issues, echoing that defendants are not getting to court hearings in a timely manner, as well as concerns that they are not getting access to religious services and the county isn’t able to uphold “civil liberty obligations.” 

“Where it goes from the two committees remains to be seen,” May said. 

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Chris Libonati

Chris Libonati covers government, accountability and equity. Have a tip? Contact Chris at 585-290-0718 or libonati@centralcurrent.org.