Community Activists Speak Out Against Jail Study

Produced by Savannah Rychcik

Community activism is no stranger to Ithaca. On Thursday, April 20 members of Decarcerate Tompkins County organized at the Tompkins County Legislature to speak to the Jail Study Committee in protest of a proposal to expand local jails. The meeting focused on discussing the development of the study as well as opening it up for questions and comments from the public.

The Tompkins County Jail Study began in the fall of 2016 in response to the long term pattern of crowding at the county jail and pressure to decrease incarceration rates. As a result, the Tompkins County Legislature and the Center for Governmental Research (CGR), based in Rochester, NY, made an agreement to conduct a study on the jail population and criminal justice system of Tompkins County.

The study focuses on the Tompkins County criminal justice and jail operations, efficiency opportunities, opportunities to expand alternatives to incarceration programs, and best practices from different communities inside and outside of New York State. Results of this study will be brought to the Jail Study Committee for further decision making of how to implement these different opportunities.

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Tompkins County Legislature court house where the Jail Study Committee meeting was held.

Members of the local organization Decarcerate Tompkins County sat in on the committee meeting to advocate for more resources in the community that would address issues of substance abuse and mental health.

“Drug addiction, mental health crisis, and poverty should not be criminalized but actually dealt with in the community,” said community member Erin Griffith. “Even before they get to jail or even if they go to jail for some other reason, these issues should be dealt with separately and in the community.”

CGR presented its initial proposal to the Jail Study Committee on Nov 1, 2016 outlining the main focuses of the study, which included the analysis of mental health and substance abuse characteristics in inmates. In response to the results of the analysis, CGR proposed to assess various initiatives including: substance abuse rehab beds, detox facilities, re-entry programs, limited use of bail and other community-based options.

Members of Decarcerate Tompkins County and other community members have focused on advocating for the implementation of these programs both within the prison system but also throughout the community in order to decrease incarceration rates.

“I’ve done over 60 mental health and substance abuse screenings at the jail and from experience they certainly do want services inside the jail; they are in a crisis and when people are in a crisis it’s a good time for change and i think as a community we should capitalize on that desire to change,” said Emma Madison, intern at the Tompkins County Jail. “Everyone inside the jail is our community, whether they are there now or have been there before.”

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A member of Decarcerate Tompkins County stands before the Jail Study Committee to protest expanding local jails.

Tompkins County Legislature Richard John has acted as chair of the Jail Study Committee since its initial assembly. The committee is charged with tasks such as  educating itself regarding the current condition of the jail and its policies, investigating costs and recommending alternative methods to meet overcrowding at the jail, and the financial implications of those alternatives for county taxpayers.

Both members of Decarcerate Tompkins County and other community members showed their frustration surrounding the lack of communication between the committee and the public. Many voiced their opinions surrounding the presentation that had taken place at the beginning of the meeting and how it was not beneficial to the conversation as a whole.

“It would have been great to, instead of during that presentation hearing that they read things and talked to people, hear them tell us: here are some things we learned from reading things and talking to people,” said Decarcerate Tompkins County member Jessie Goldberg. “That would have been more helpful than reading a memo we already had in our possession.”

CGR and the Jail Study Committee anticipates that the study will be finished by May 2017. Until the study is completed there will be opportunities for the public to learn about the progress of the study, ask questions and share opinions.
For more information on the study, visit: https://www.cgr.org/TompkinsCrimJust/

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