TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Nostalgia can be a beautiful thing, a faint word, smell or taste that evokes a memory of one’s past. Integral to that beauty is the randomness of nostalgia—one never knows when it may strike or how it can appear.

Admittedly, the Tompkins County Legislature’s chambers are not necessarily a room that generates much blissful nostalgia, but Tuesday night it did (though perhaps blissful is generous). Does the phrase “Tompkins County Jail renovations” rouse any long-buried sentiments in your soul?

Indeed, the Tompkins County Jail renovations were the primary topic of discussion at the legislature this week, pulling a topic that had largely been dormant at the public discussion level since well before the COVID-19 pandemic to the forefront once again. Eventually, the county legislature decided to move forward with assessing the need for and feasibility of renovations to the jail, but it looks like any solid progress on renovations is months away with the establishment of a task force that will consider input from a wider group of voices on the necessity and cost of jail upgrades, renovations, rebuilding, etc.

The issue seems to rest on a specific crux: proponents have stated that the jail is old, outdated and in need of repair for the comfort of workers and people who are incarcerated, and also argue that the proposed renovations wouldn’t actually expand the jail’s capacity from its current 82 beds. Opponents argue that large amounts of money shouldn’t be directed toward the jail renovations, particularly considering the county’s generally agreed-upon dedication to keeping the jail population low—a sentiment espoused both by politicians and law enforcement, including Tompkins County Sheriff Derek Osborne and Tompkins County District Attorney Matthew Van Houten.

“The jail serves as a real symbol as the public safety system as a whole, but I would like to stress that the jail is one element of the entire public safety system,” Public Safety Committee Chair Rich John said.

John started the discussion with a lengthy recitation of the situation from four years ago, when jail renovations were a constant topic. No action was taken then, he said, but the interim has only exacerbated structural issues at the building on Warren Road, which also houses the sheriff’s office.

“The building itself, the structure, has not done better in that time, in fact, it’s done worse,” John said. He posited that the renovations could be used to facilitate more progress on the Reimagining Public Safety reform’s changes to the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office, such as providing more space for additional staff members used to respond to mental health crises, as one example. “I believe it is time to look at the jail, in terms of a larger construction project. […] If we wait, we’re going to spend more. If we don’t act, that price will be even higher.”

John said he would “have a conversation” about the number of beds in the jail, but that because the renovations don’t constitute an actual expansion of capacity, it would not cause a change in values.

“82 [beds] isn’t a magic number, but it is the number that New York State has approved,” John said. “If we build an 82-bed jail, are we going back on our commitment to alternatives to incarceration, to maintaining the lowest population we can safely hold in our jail? That is more a question of political will than the number of beds in the jail. We have 82 right now, we’re not using them. I don’t see us suddenly deciding to use all 82 beds.”

In recent years, the jail’s population has normally hovered between about 30-50 people at any given time, though John noted that recently the number is nearer to 60.

Legislator Travis Brooks proposed that a task force be created for 3-6 months for the purpose of evaluating whether or not a new jail is necessary; the task force would include Facilities and Infrastructure Committee, the Public Safety Committee, the sheriff’s office and the public.

“I see this as an opportunity to [hear from the community] once again,” Brooks said, referring to the large number of people who came to the meeting to speak against the jail renovations. “When you have a community that’s so passionate to get involved, let’s get them involved. Let’s come up with the best outcome for people that end up in the jail, people that work in the jail, and people who come home, the taxpayers.”

A long string of legislators followed echoing their support for Brooks’ amendment, which was then unanimously passed.

“As a county, we’ve committed to a low jail population, and this isn’t going to change that,” Sigler said. Legislator Deborah Dawson added that the renovations will create more space for services and programming at the jail, a priority for jail officials, with colleague Randy Brown speaking in favor of the renovations as well.

“These are renovations to keep that building running, this is a band-aid that could last us five years and then we’d have to figure out something else,” Black said. “I want us to move forward with this resolution, whether we vote it up or vote it down, so that we have some direction and can give direction to our staff.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at