State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, is challenging the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to help county jails relieve their overcrowded jails by moving parole violators into state prisons.
Right now, according to our local sheriffs, there are 44 parole violators being housed in local jails in Oswego, Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties, costing county taxpayers from $90 to $130 a day for each ... to house excess inmates at facilities outside the area, she said in a letter dated Thursday to Brian Fischer, commissioner of the state prison system. That, she wrote, is over $1 million a year for taxpayers in just these three counties in unnecessary and unfair expense.
The senator is asking to meet with Mr. Fischer to discuss using unoccupied space at Watertown Correctional Facility, Dry Hill, to relocate those parole violators, and said she soon will visit the Dry Hill facility to discuss potential availability there.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision declined to give Mr. Fischers reaction to Mrs. Ritchies letter, and wouldnt say whether he would be open to her idea.
Jefferson County Sheriff John P. Burns, who has been seeking solutions for his packed jail during the majority of his 10 years as sheriff, said Friday that he was surprised and pleased by Senator Ritchies initiative. His first inclination that something was developing came Thursday when his staff informed him the senators office was asking questions about jail population and costs.
I am certainly happy that Senator Ritchie has taken on this issue, he said. We need to have the state to house their parole violators and relieve the cost burden to county taxpayers, he said.
Two weeks ago, St. Lawrence County Sheriff Kevin M. Wells disclosed that his facility had joined a growing list of county jails dealing with overcrowding.
The $1 million cited by Sen. Ritchie is precisely what Jefferson County spent last year to house out inmates to other counties, said Lt. Kristopher M. Spencer, jail superintendent at the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building. This years expense, as of the end of July, has been $464,688, he said.
The jail on Friday was housing out 42 prisoners, including 20 women, leaving 113 men and 14 women in the Watertown facility. The state has set the PSBs maximum population at 144; on Thursday, some inmates were moved to other counties so there would be room for arrests made during the holiday weekend, the lieutenant said.
Nineteen parole violators were being held Friday in the PSB, including six who are confined on no other charges and therefore are state-ready, he said. The average length of county confinement of parole violators has been in the range of 35 to 45 days, he said, but he found a record of one prisoner who was jailed for 70 days. That parole violator never went back to prison, Lt. Spencer said. The man ultimately was released on his own recognizance.
The state has not reimbursed counties in recent years for housing parole violators, Sheriff Burns said.
In his efforts to have Jefferson County expand its jail, Sheriff Burns has contended that the larger facility could reverse the spending trend of recent years. It could bring in revenue by housing inmates from other overburdened counties.
Jefferson County Legislator Philip N. Reed, R-Fishers Landing, questioned whether a new facility was necessary, given the potential to house inmates at several nearby state facilities, as Mrs. Ritchie has proposed. Jefferson County is home to two prisons, one in Watertown and the other in Cape Vincent. Gouverneur Correctional Facility isnt far, either.
In a business world, you would never build a brand-new facility when you have space, Mr. Reed said. Theres got to be a way to work with the state to investigate using their excess beds to minimize the impact and the cost to the local taxpayer.
Lt. Spencer noted that the county lost its ability to house prisoners for Fort Drum after 2008 because of its jail population burden. The county received federal reimbursement of about $350,000 in 2008, he said.
Sen. Ritchies challenge to the state comes little more than a month after the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association Inc. lodged its own assault upon Mr. Fischers office. But its concern focused on declining numbers of officers working in the state prisons, driving up the inmate-to-officer ratio and increasing the risk of violent incidents inside correctional facilities.
Watertown Correctional Facility was one of four in the state that saw closure of parts of the prison. Forty-six beds were consolidated temporarily, Linda Foglia, a Department of Corrections and Community Supervision spokeswoman, said in an email. No employees were laid off as a result, she said.