Jail Expansion is Moving Ahead
Legislators vote against one-year moratorium
If you build it, will they come? This is the question still being asked by both the Tompkins County Legislature and much of the community in regards to the recent vote to expand the county jail.
Last September, the county legislature approved a roughly $900,000 county jail expansion project, which included the addition of seven more beds in a newly renovated room. This project was to alleviate the issue of overcrowding in the county jail, which currently houses a little more than 90 inmates, which exceeds the maximum of 75. On Feb. 18, a similar decision was made, with a 3 to 11 vote ruling against a one-year moratorium to the jail expansion.
There has not been an estimate yet on how much this project will cost, but many community members are strongly opposed to the decision made on the grounds that it is a money making scheme that will simply result in even more incarcerations in and around Tompkins county. Dubian Ade, a senior at Ithaca College who attended the vote, said the problem goes even further, to a matter of discrimination toward minorities.
“Even the very notion of investing in incarceration assumes that you’re going to arrest people and incarcerate them,” Ade said. “If you have seven beds and you’re trying to fill those beds, how do you do that? Over-policing in areas where historically people of color have taken up residency, in places where it’s justifiable, usually in communities of color where stigmas of crime of men and women of color exists.”
The 2013 statistics for the county jail revelaed that white non-Hispanics are 68 percent of the inmate population, blacks are 22 percent, Latinos are 5 percent, Asians are 0.5 percent, Native and Alaskan are 10 percent and 3.4 percent identified as other.
Paula Ioanide, assistant professor of the center for the study of culture, race and ethnicity, is a proponent for alternative incarceration programs. She suggested that significant part of the problem lies in where the state chooses to spend its time and money.
“New construction for jails are funded through borrowing against taxpayer dollars,” Ioanide said. “Instead of building more jail cells, more cages through which to remove people from their communities, what we want instead is an investment in alternative incarceration programs. And those don’t necessarily need to be moderated by the state or state organizations, but they can be community based alternatives to incarceration.”
Others, however, including members of the legislature, feel as if the expansion has nothing to do with incarcerations, but that it is a means to bring more comfort to the inmates themselves.
Leslyn Mc-Bean Clairborne, Tompkins County legislator and deputy director of the Greater Ithaca Activities Center, voted in favor of the moratorium in hopes that alternative incarceration methods could be worked out in that year. Clairborne, who is also the chair of the Public Safety Committee, said she is hoping to form a special task force of the committee that can find more alternatives to incarceration. She said her goal was to have one year to make a reasonable change to the number of inmates before the decision to expand the jail was made.
While some legislators were not in favor of the decision to expand the jail, others view it as a humane way of keeping inmates from being boarded out — or shipped to other jails — for an undetermined number of nights. In the last two years, boarding out of inmates has cost the county $245,000, and many county leaders suggest that the expansion project will pay for itself in roughly four and a half years. Dan Klein, a Tompkins county legislator, said this expansion will not increase the number of inmates at the jail.
“The exact same number of people will be in jail, whether we do this or not,” Klein said. “It’s just a question of whether they will be in this county or not. And I think everyone agrees it’s better to have them in the county than out of the county.”
Still, others are on the fence as to how they feel about both the expansion and the ill-fated moratorium. It can not be determined now whether or not this decision will result in an increase of inmates at the County jail, and if the project will pay itself back in the long run, but community members like Ioanide are continuing their protest of the jail system while promoting more alternative incarceration programs. A total estimate of the cost of the expansion has not yet been publicly released.
Tylor Colby is a freshman writing major who has every intention of experiencing the new jail. Email him it at tcolby1[at]Ithaca.edu.