More than a jail problem: Study looks at Yates County Jail

Gwen Chamberlain
The entrance to the Yates County Jail at the Public Safety Building on Main Street in Penn Yan.

The Yates County Public Safety Building on Main Street in Penn Yan was built in 1975, according to the cornerstone on the low slung structure that houses the county jail. Sheriff Ron Spike says if the jail had been built in 1985, it would be more efficient to operate, and safer for his best assets — the men and women who work there. “I’m concerned about the safety of the people who work here, the safety of the inmates and the people who visit,” he said.

As it stands now, with its linear design, it will never be efficient, according to a federal consultant who toured the jail, interviewed dozens of stakeholders in the local justice system, and collected data for a report due back to the county next month.

The costs to operate the jail, the staffing it requires, and the limits it puts on management have been the topic of discussion and speculation for the past few years.

One of the goals of a study begun last week is to help local officials realize that, “It is never just a ‘jail problem,’ but it is a justice system and a community issue,” according to the presentation by a team of consultants from the National Institute of Corrections (NIC).

The pair spent three days in the Yates County Jail last week. On their fourth day in the area, they met with the Yates County Public Safety Committee and parties interested in local criminal justice for three hours, reviewing their findings and hearing comments.

“Somewhere between high cost and high risk, there’s a solution, and it’s a community responsibility to find that solution,” said Karen Albert, one of the consultants. Noting this is the first time she has been sent to study a jail to look for efficiencies (more frequently, requests for help come when there is overcrowding), she stressed the solutions will involve multiple county and local agencies and organizations.

Albert, whose background is in corrections, and Mark Goldman, an architect who specializes in assessing and planning justice facilities and systems, were sent to Yates County by the NIC after Spike requested an assessment of the 41-year-old jail. County officials are seeking recommendations for making the county’s jail operations more efficient, and she later declared, “By its nature, your facility is always going to be inefficient.”

Albert says the jail’s layout, with individual cells arranged along hallways limits corrections officers ability to have eyes on inmates to about one minute out of every hour.

Albert commented, “This style is just not used anymore because you just can’t manage people.”

Once the study is complete, it should be a tool that can help Yates County officials begin planning for the future of the jail, deciding between doing nothing, perhaps renovating the existing jail, or building a new facility.

During the three days here, the pair toured the jail and interviewed a number of people who are stakeholders: members of the legislature’s Public Safety Committee, legislators, court officials, probation, Penn Yan Police, a public defender and the district attorney, mental health officials, and representatives of addiction counseling organizations, and more.

Goldman explained the process to assess needs and then renovate an existing jail or develop a new jail through occupation can take nearly three years, but the process begins with the recognition that something needs to be done.

Two legislators who have consistently questioned the management of the jail, challenged some of the statistics used by Albert and Goldman, saying the average daily population figures don’t match statistics they have found on a state-operated website.

After completing their assessment, interviews, and reviews of statistics, the pair reported:

• 97 to 98 percent of the people in the jail come back to the community. “They are your people. While we have a captive audience, let’s do something with them,” said Albert. But their assessment indicates there are inadequate facilities for education, addiction counseling, and visitation.

• The jail’s population this year is the lowest it’s been in recent times. Changes throughout the criminal justice system — a new prosecutor, a new judge, new community programs that offer alternatives — do have an impact.

• When the jail is 80 percent occupied, it is at its functional capacity. The admission of one female, or an individual requiring special placement because of classification, has an impact on the way space is used.

• There is cooperation among the criminal justice partners who have common objectives

• Positive programs are being offered by county agencies and private providers to foster positive changes in the criminal justice population.

• During a tour of the jail, the pair noted areas that do not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, such as stairs to the recreation area and to the dormitory as well as barriers in the shower area. They also noted awkward traffic paths, seriously aging equipment, inadequate space for programs and visitation, and wear and tear.

• Considering the public safety building is a facility that is active around the clock, the comparable age of the building is 176 years.

• There are functional concerns with the lack of visibility, hidden areas, poor layout in the booking area, and a lack of specialized housing.

In addition to the jail, the public safety building contains the Sheriff’s Department headquarters, Emergency Management offices, and the 911 dispatch center.

Albert and Goldman recommend the county establish a Criminal Justice Coordinating Council that involves social service agencies to begin discussing options for going forward.