ITHACA, N.Y. — A joint committee of Tompkins County lawmakers heard new proposals to improve the county jail and public safety building on 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 modernize the county jail.
The group consisted of several members of the legislature, community members, representatives of the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office and county corrections officers. The final report also included input from several formerly incarcerated individuals across two focus groups.
Consultant Paula Ioannide worked with Brooks to form the working group and focus groups.
“I feel like we have the voices of the affected community members represented in this report,” Iwanide said during the meeting.
The group proposed arranging the cells around a two-story atrium, which they referred to as the “pod system.” The pod configuration will create a new recreational space for programming and socializing, while reducing the number of correctional officers needed to monitor inmates, group members said.
Currently, the prison cells are arranged in two lines with a hallway in the middle. The current configuration requires more correctional officers to monitor cells and makes emergency response more difficult, the report found.
The recommended configuration would require only one correctional officer to supervise each pod, the report said.
Members of the working group also called for repairs to the prison’s medical facilities, which are currently housed in a modernized holding cell. It also called for “at least” three separate, secure beds near the medical facility so that inmates suffering from drug withdrawal symptoms during detoxification can be more easily monitored.
A legal brief from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance notes that careful monitoring of inmate detoxification can reduce serious injuries, inmate deaths and costly damages.
Sound travels easily throughout the prison in its current form. Guests in the action group suggested installing carpeting in common areas to dampen sound, which they said could help reduce “excessive stress levels”.
Task force members also suggested expanding programming space at the prison. There is currently one classroom available where guests can attend high school equivalency classes. The work group recommended at least one additional group programming space to allow for other meetings to take place during classes.
Although the prison had a library at one time, it was later “taken over for other needs.” The group recommended a dedicated and expanded library and suggested partnering with different community organizations to help revitalize the space.
Before presenting to the Public Safety and Infrastructure committees, the task force held two focus groups with formerly incarcerated individuals.
In the focus group, former inmates realized that prison wasn’t meant to be a “vacation,” but the recommendations they made were what they needed to “feel human, feel safe, and feel important,” Brooks said.
Public Safety Commission Chairman Rich John said the jail and other public safety facilities are often one of the most expensive expenses in any community. Tompkins is no different.
The current building costs the county about $330,000 annually, work group members wrote in the report.
The Public Safety Building is the most expensive building the county maintains, according to the task force’s report. In an effort to reduce costs in the long term, the group suggested that the proposed changes would lead to long-term savings because a “major renovation project” would allow for the upgrade of modern, more efficient systems. They also requested a long-term analysis of energy and maintenance costs.
These talks come as lawmakers and county staff prepare to craft the 2024 budget. Lawmakers and other county officials have previously expressed concerns that next year’s budget could be tougher than usual.
Infrastructure and Facilities Committee member Deborah Dawson later said Voice of Ithaca She believes that “a lot of (the recommendations) in the report should be taken into account on the basis of what we can afford.”
She said the Legislature and staff will need to “distinguish between what is really necessary and what would be nice.”
The working group report will be discussed at the next meeting of the Infrastructure and Facilities Committee on September 21. If members vote to accept the report, it will move to the full county Legislature for a final vote on Oct. 3, where lawmakers will have the final decision. Say what changes you will eventually make in the final plan of the building.