ITHACA, N.Y.—A joint committee of Tompkins County legislators heard new proposals for improvements to the county jail and Public Safety building Wednesday.
The proposals came from members of the “Jail Working Group,” which was formed in 2022 by County Legislator Travis Brooks to allow community input on a previous plan to update the county jail.
The group consisted of several members of the legislature, community members, representatives from the Tompkins County Sheriff’s office and county corrections officers. The final report also included input from several formerly incarcerated individuals via two focus groups.
Consultant Paula Ioanide worked with Brooks to form the working group and focus groups.
“I feel like we have the voices of impacted community members represented in this report,” Ioanide said during the meeting.
The group suggested arranging cells around a two story atrium, which they refer to as a “pod system.” Group members said the pod configuration would create a new recreational space for programming and socializing, while also reducing the number of corrections officers needed to monitor inmates.
Currently, the jail’s holding cells are arranged in two lines with a hallway down the center. The report found that the current configuration requires more corrections officers to monitor the cells and makes responding to emergency situations more difficult.
The report said the recommended configuration would make it so only one corrections officer is needed to oversee each pod.
Working group members also called for an overhaul of the jail’s medical facilities, which are currently housed in a retrofitted holding cell. It also called for “at least” three segregated and secure beds near the medical facility so that inmates who are experiencing drug withdrawal symptoms during detoxification can be more easily monitored.
A legal brief from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance suggests closer monitoring of detoxing inmates can reduce serious injuries, inmate deaths and costly damages.
Sound carries easily throughout the jail in its current conformation. Inmates in the working group suggested installing carpeting in common areas to dampen sound which they said could help reduce “excessive stress levels.”
Working group members also proposed expanding programming space in the jail. There is one classroom available currently where inmates can attend highschool equivalency classes. The working group recommended at least one additional space for group programming to allow for other meetings to occur during classes.
Though the jail had a library at one point, it was later “taken over for other needs.” The group recommended a dedicated and expanded library and suggested a partnership with various community organizations to help revitalize the space.
Before the presentation to the Public Safety and Infrastructure Committees, the working group held two focus groups with previously incarcerated individuals.
In the focus group, Brooks said, former inmates recognized jail was not supposed to be “vacation,” but the recommendations they put forward were what they needed to “feel human, feel safe, and like they matter.”
Public Safety Committee Chairman Rich John said the jail and other public safety facilities are often one of the most costly expenses in any community. Tompkins is no different.
Working group members wrote in the report that the present building costs the county roughly $330,000 annually.
The Public Safety building is the most expensive building the county maintains according to the report from the working group. In an effort to cut costs in the long-run, the group suggested that their proposed changes would result in long-term savings because a “large renovation project” would allow upgrades to modern and more efficient systems. They also requested a long-term analysis of energy and maintenance costs.
These conversations come at a time when legislators and county staff are gearing up to craft the 2024 budget. Legislators and other county officials have previously expressed concerns that next year’s budget could be tighter than usual.
Infrastructure and Facilities Committee member Deborah Dawson later told The Ithaca Voice that she thinks “a lot of [recommendations] in the report will have to be considered on the basis of what we can afford.”
She said the legislature and the working group will need to “make a distinction between what’s really necessary and what would be nice.”
The working group report will be discussed at the next Infrastructure and Facilities Committee meeting Sept. 21. If members vote to accept the report, it will move onto the full county legislature for a final vote on Oct. 3, where legislators will have the final say on what changes ultimately make it into the final plan for the building.