As Bail Reform Takes Hold Across New York State, a Rural County Wrestles With The Future Of Its Aging Jail

The debate around bail reform focused predominantly on New York City's Rikers Island, but the bigger impact may be upstate, where almost two-thirds of the state’s jail capacity is located.

As Bail Reform Takes Hold Across New York State, a Rural County Wrestles With The Future Of Its Aging Jail

The debate around bail reform focused predominantly on New York City's Rikers Island, but the bigger impact may be upstate, where almost two-thirds of the state’s jail capacity is located.

New York State’s bail reform went into effect last month, following a public debate that focused predominantly on its consequences for the 7,000 people jailed on New York City’s Rikers Island. Its imperative was exemplified by Kalief Browder, the 16-year-old detained there for three years despite never being convicted of a crime, who left so mentally and physically scarred that he ultimately took his own life.

But the reform’s bigger impact may be upstate, where almost two-thirds of New York’s jail capacity is located, and where half the jails have 190 or fewer beds. 

Nowhere is this truer than in Cortland, a rural county of 48,000 people just south of Syracuse. Between 2009 and 2018, Cortland’s jail population grew 50.8 percent, the largest increase of any New York county with a significant jail population, even as the statewide jailed population declined. Its jail, originally built with 57 beds, has been overcrowded almost since it was constructed in 1990, and in recent years, legislators there seemed poised to spend more than $50 million on a new, expanded facility.

But something different happened instead. A sudden budget shortfall gave legislators pause, and then some residents began to wonder if the solution to an overcrowded jail wasn’t a new building, but to shrink the group of people detained. Bail reform, which has greatly narrowed the group of defendants who can be held pretrial, has now reduced Cortland’s jail population to its lowest number in years, and the county legislature has effectively reversed on its plans.

Cortland’s experience illustrates how intangible changes in the books of law affect the bricks and mortar of the criminal legal system. It also foretells some of the challenges that communities may face as they limit their use of detention. In Cortland, as in many other budget-strapped counties, the jail had become the de facto coordinator of social services for its detainees. Now, as the reforms loosen the criminal legal system’s grip, defendants may have less contact with drug treatment providers and other services they previously encountered inside. The community is grappling with how to adjust, says Insha Rahman, director of strategy and new initiatives at the Vera Institute of Justice, which has consulted with the county. “So, it’s both an opportunity and potentially a crisis for the county if they don’t respond accordingly.”

Donate to The Appeal

Cortland County’s jail shares a building with the sheriff’s office downtown in the city of Cortland, squeezed onto the same block as a courthouse, a gas station, and a dental clinic. Undersheriff Budd Rigg, who oversees the facility, estimates that over his 25-year career he has spent more time within its walls than almost anyone. “This is my life,” he told The Appeal.

He joined the sheriff’s office as a line officer, attracted by the promise of a secure job that would help him support his wife and three young children. But he became increasingly interested in the jail’s operation, and as he climbed the ranks, he initiated many of the improvements made there over the years. 

He has also been among the most outspoken in calling for a new facility. In 2005, having attained the rank of lieutenant, he contributed to a report by a citizen’s advisory committee that recommended “a new jail structure” be built “outside of the confines of the urban center of Cortland.” And in 2015, by then a captain, he led the preparation of another report, “The Case for a New Cortland County Public Safety Facility/Correctional Center.” 

On a recent tour of the current facility, Rigg catalogued its insufficiencies. The jail’s architects had organized the cells around a central outdoor recreation area, but the compact design created blind spots inside that made it difficult for correctional officers to supervise detainees, and operating the facility ultimately required six more full-time positions than a nearby jail of comparable size. Nor did the design anticipate the presence of female prisoners, minors, or prisoners with special needs, who eventually needed to be allotted separate space. 

These problems have been exacerbated by overcrowding. Three spaces intended for meetings between detainees and educators or counselors were converted into housing. As the occupancy climbed, the sheriff’s office obtained variances to exceed the threshold, and paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to board people in neighboring counties. Later, the jail eliminated its largest remaining recreational area, a small indoor basketball court, to make space for 30 additional beds.

This constrains the services that can be provided to the detainees. Outside of a small library, the only multipurpose space is a midsize room used for visitation, so charities and other organizations take turns rotating through during the evenings to offer vocational services, substance use treatment programs, and assistance with re-entry, dividing the already scarce time between male and female prisoners. Rigg believes that a new jail with a more efficient design will save money in the long-term, but he says the most important benefit will be additional space for expanding the scope of services.

Rigg has a more explicit reason to care than most. Asked whether he has ever jailed someone he knows closely, he exchanged a glance with a colleague and then answered slowly: “Daughter.” After a pause, he continued. “She’s in there right now.” 

Around 2010, Rigg’s oldest daughter, then in her mid-20s, suffered some complications after a pregnancy. Rigg said she was prescribed opiates, fell hard into addiction, and has been in and out of the jail ever since. Rigg has been raising two of her children since 2012. “It’s every parent’s nightmare. I remember having those nights, lying in bed waiting for the officer to knock on my door, waiting for that phone call. It’s a horrible feeling when they get so addicted that they pretty much give up on everything.”

Rigg said his daughter’s experience didn’t alter his thinking about the jail, but he now knows firsthand what other parents in Cortland are going through. “Every single person in jail is somebody’s son or daughter,” he often tells his staff. “If you can just keep that in the back of your mind, it changes how you deal with them.”

The closest Cortland came to beginning construction on its new jail was in August 2015, when the legislature selected an architectural firm and began authorizing money to develop the project and assess potential sites. (Over the next four years the firm would be paid over $470,000 for those services.) Rigg got a local tractor business to donate a 73-acre parcel of undeveloped land four miles down the road from the current jail.

But when it came to authorizing $1.4 million to finalize a design, the legislators wavered. In April 2016, as a budget crisis was emerging and facing criticism from increasingly vocal residents, legislators voted against the next phase of development; instead, that September, they created a committee to study their options. Over the next year, the committee examined the facts, culminating in a raucous meeting on Nov. 30, 2017, in which it failed to come to an agreement—an outcome greeted by applause from the audience. “At this point it’s stalemated, then,” the chairperson said reluctantly. At a meeting of the full legislature three weeks later, after more than a dozen community residents spoke against the jail with none in support, a longtime legislator called for a vote, saying: “I’d like to put this to bed.” It went down, 15 to 2.

One of the residents who took a keen interest in the outcome was Cathy Bischoff. She traces her ancestry to the Huguenots who founded New Paltz, 120 miles southeast. But she describes herself as a newcomer to the area, having moved back to New York five years ago after a career turning around troubled programs in Arizona’s state health department. In her new home of Cortland, she found herself pulled into the deliberations over the criminal legal system. 

Bischoff began to question why the jail was so overcrowded to begin with. Her first discovery was that nobody knew the answer because Cortland had no criminal justice data management system. So, in January 2018 she and two database specialists volunteered to build one.

Drawing on nearly a decade of data obtained from the sheriff’s office and other county agencies, the volunteers showed that crime wasn’t driving the increase in detainees; overall admissions to the jail had actually declined. The duration that people stay in jail was what had lengthened, by 49 percent between 2013 and 2017. This, in turn, seemed to follow from changes in the circumstances of their arrests. In particular, with the blossoming of the opioid epidemic, substance was now driving most of the crime in the area: The top three charges in 2017 were petit larceny, misdemeanor drug possession, and possession of a hypodermic needle. 

The population in the jail had changed, too. Whereas a decade ago only 1 in 10 of those admitted to the jail were women, they now made up more than a quarter of bookings. And people jailed for parole violations, who were ineligible for bail and thus held longer than other arrestees, increased by 44 percent. “It is not unreasonable to propose that lengthening [length of stay] may be partially tied to increasing levels of addiction among inmates,” Bischoff wrote in slides presented to the legislature in November 2018. 

Many attributed the county’s substance use problems to a scarcity of treatment options. The county has no inpatient residential treatment facility and no methadone programs, and only in the last few years have providers offered suboxone, an alternative medication for opioid dependence. To this day, the jail is effectively the county’s largest detox center. Marie Walsh, the executive director of Catholic Charities of Cortland County, one of the county’s largest nonprofit social service providers, said, “The community needs to talk about this because so many people are coming out of jail and there’s nothing. There’s nothing.”

With the prospect of a new jail at a standstill and Cortland’s legislators uncertain how to move forward, statewide reforms overtook them on Jan. 1. In the final months of 2019, as judges narrowed the set of defendants for whom they set bail, Cortland’s jail population began to fall as predicted, and by the end of the year it hovered around 55 people, under its original capacity for the first time in years. 

This was the objective of the reforms, and with good reason: People detained pretrial may suffer unemployment or lose their housing, they are more likely to plead guilty than defendants in otherwise similar circumstances, and they are more likely to be charged with a new crime in the future. But in Cortland, as in many other communities, the criminal legal system has adapted by developing some limited process for addressing the addiction, trauma, and instability of the defendants brought into its gyre. And the people who work within this system have grown accustomed to viewing the jail as a lifeline for many of the county’s most vulnerable people. 

Rigg has been more conscientious than many jail administrators. He has brought in health navigators to help detainees enroll in Medicaid, so they are eligible for health coverage immediately upon release. And his officers offer to drive them straight from jail to rehab services, going as far as the Adirondacks. “We’ve saved a lot of lives,” Rigg said. 

But under bail reform, people arrested for drug-related crimes generally receive a summons and remain at liberty until their trial, giving up what he sees as their best opportunity at getting help. He worries that state lawmakers advanced the changes without a sound understanding of the role that he and other law enforcement play in the ecosystem of treatment. “Cortland County Jail is not Rikers Island. It never was. And I don’t think people truly have an understanding of the kind of work we do and the compassion that my officers put forward.”

Cortland County District Attorney Perfetti also opposed the reforms and has met with state legislators about revising them, but in the meantime the county has begun to adapt to a new process where fewer arrestees have contact with jail. The public defender and assigned counsel’s office are both hiring case managers who they hope can help defendants connect with services even while they remain at liberty. And in October, following a recommendation made by the Vera Institute of Justice, the legislature consolidated the arraignment of arrestees from the county’s 15 town, village, and city courts, which will make it feasible to offer all of them pretrial services, regardless of whether they are booked into jail. 

Among those who cast their vote in favor was Bischoff. Her assessment of the criminal legal system earned such accolades from the county’s leaders that in February 2019, when a longtime legislator died following an illness, she was nominated to replace him and unanimously approved to assume his seat. In November she ran for election unopposed and won outright. As the chairperson of a committee that assesses the criminal legal system, she and a new crop of legislators have proposed that the county explore the costs of renovating the existing jail rather than replacing it. 

But patterns of behavior ingrained in the legal system may be even harder to change than prison walls. What makes the bail reforms particularly difficult is that they demand that the system let go. “What you’re changing is not law, what you’re changing is not procedure. What you’re changing is culture,” Bischoff said. “And that takes time.”

Support The Appeal

If you valued this article, please help us produce more journalism like this by making a contribution today.