Ulster County lawmakers say they anticipate a “hard conversation” about staffing levels at the Ulster County Jail in light of both the new bail reform law and a broader trend away from incarceration for low-level offenders.
But Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa said this week he believes it’s still too early to predict what the long-term impact of the reforms on the jail population will be.
The jail at 380 Boulevard in Kingston was completed in 2008 after a lengthy planning process and at least $20 million in costs overruns. The facility was built to accommodate up to 458 inmates in 12 housing “pods” — each built to accommodate up to 48 prisoners. Ulster County Legislature Chairman Dave Donaldson (D-Kingston) recalls that at the time the jail was conceived, consultants hired by the county said that the capacity was needed to accommodate a projected increase in inmates over the coming years. Backers of the plan also saw a potential for profit in the form of boarding fees paid to take in excess prisoners from surrounding counties with smaller jails.
“They were showing us graphs that said we were going to get more and more people in jail as time goes on,” said Donaldson. “But that didn’t happen. Without a doubt it was built too big.”
Indeed, the jail’s daily count of inmates serving sentences of less than one year or held in pretrial detention never approached capacity. In 2014, at a time when the jail was boarding inmates from Dutchess and Greene counties, the state Commission on Corrections reported an average daily count of 370. In January 2019, when Sheriff Juan Figueroa took office, that number stood around 240. The numbers began to plummet further after state lawmakers passed a reform bill that eliminated cash bail for virtually all misdemeanor and non-violent felonies. Prior to the bill’s passage, about 60 percent of the jail’s population was made up of prisoners held in pretrial detention either because they could not make bail or had been remanded without bail. On Jan. 28, less than a month after bail reform took effect, Figueroa said the inmate count stood at 150.
While jail is less than one-third full, staffing at the facility continues to reflect a higher inmate count. Those staffing levels are mandated by the New York State Commission on Corrections which uses a complex formula that is based on a facility’s maximum capacity. Current minimum staffing levels range from 42 on weekdays when inmates must be transported to court and circulate around the jail to 22 at night when they are locked in their cells.
Almost $10 million
Altogether, Ulster County employs 158 corrections officers and supervisors. In 2019, salaries and benefits for jail staff totaled $9.7 million. Donaldson and former legislative Chair Tracey Bartels both said that they anticipated discussions in the legislature over potential changes to staffing to reflect post-bail reform realities. Donaldson said, if needed, he envisioned a program of attrition and retirement incentives to reduce staff at the jail without layoffs. Bartels, meanwhile, said that she believed discussion of staffing issues would occur during the current legislative session.
“We need to see where bail reform and others reforms are going to settle out, but at some point we’re going to have to have that hard conversation,” said Bartels, a not-of-party voter who caucuses with legislature Democrats. “Having a jail with staffing for a population we’re never going to see just doesn’t make sense.”
But Figueroa contends that overstaffing is not an issue at the jail. The sheriff noted that the office’s corrections division is already 12 officers short of full strength. In addition, Figueroa said, additional officers remained off the daily muster because they were out on short-term disability or family medical leave.
State rules an issue, says sheriff
Figueroa added that reducing staff at the jail would likely be complicated by state-mandated requirements that inmates be kept separate based on classification criteria. Currently, in addition to three general housing pods the jail operates separate units for female prisoners, prisoners barred from contact with other inmates and new intakes awaiting classification. The jail also operates a disciplinary housing unit, a medical unit and a dormitory for prisoners in an inmate work program. Figueroa said that an additional dorm would soon be opened to accommodate inmates in a medically assisted treatment program for opioid addicts. One additional housing unit and two dorms have been closed down and do not require staffing.
Figueroa said state regulations mandated that the classification units be fully manned, even if there’s only a single prisoner assigned to them. “I can’t put female inmates in with males,” said Figueroa. “I can’t put gang members who are fighting each other out in the street in the same pod.”
Figueroa also said he believes it’s too early to determine the long-term impact of bail reform on the jail population. The sheriff noted that many of the cells once occupied by inmates in pretrial detention might end up filled with prisoners serving court-ordered sentences. In addition, under intense pressure from law enforcement groups and a campaign highlighting crimes committed by recently released defendants, some lawmakers have moved to make changes to the reform bill that could keep more accused people in custody pending trial. In addition, Greene County, which stopped boarding inmates at the Ulster County Jail last year, recently signaled that they may resume the program.
“I’m a realist — if it turns out that the [staffing] numbers have to be adjusted they will be adjusted,” said Figueroa. “But right now it is just too soon to tell.”