Opinion: Questioning Cortland's need for a new jail

The following is an opinion column submitted by Mechthild Nagel, a professor of philosophy at SUNY Cortland who has taught in various prisons for men in central New York.

As always, alternative viewpoints are welcome. To submit a guest column, email Editor Peter Blanchard at [email protected]

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What is the public good of a jail? In many counties, it is dubbed a public safety facility, locking up those who disturb the public order. Purse-snatchers or those breaking in to private cars are universally frowned upon or feared. One’s sense of self feels violated and the effects could often be traumatic. Jail clearly seems to be an institution that is validated by all members of a community as a public good. Or is it?

As Cortland County legislators vote their conscience or simply follow a state mandate, members of the public are asked to weigh in and see if it is indeed beneficial for all stakeholders to endorse a $40 million new jail built somewhere in the county.

A few years ago, that talk of a new jail died down because of other big ticket items which have now been shelved or abandoned (e.g. the Ash for Trash project). For now, a $150,000 jail study will be conducted.

An architecture firm won the bid to help find 6 possible sites, and one of them will have to get the approval of the New York State Commission of Corrections.

Related: Report highlights urgent need for new Cortland County Jail

Last year, we also experienced an all-time low of 50 prisoners/day along with diversions of Drug Court or other Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI). However, that was before the new local meth law kicked in, as Cortland experienced a spike in meth users’ arrests.

Indeed, policy or law determines the incarceration rate. What was the flavor of the 1980s, crack-cocaine moral panic ensuing the full force of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration is today’s pursuit of meth and heroin users.


Illustration by Dom Molino

What if we pursued a public health approach to jails at the local and state level? We would probably consider those who steal $50 to feed their illicit addiction with compassion and send them to treatment centers.

This, in fact, has been initiated by the Obama administration. Those who are in jail on remand for failing to make bail but have a veteran’s status can be assessed by a regional Federal Justice Administrator, who assesses the prisoner for trauma, depression or PTSD. If they qualify, the administrator whisks them off to the Syracuse Veteran’s Hospital and they get medical attention.

What if we made such extensive treatment available for all who need these services and are unable to pay for them? It would be much cheaper to give them out-patient care than treat them in jail. It’s also a far more successful route than drug treatment court, which is still tied to punitive sanctions. And most addicts take their time–about eight relapses–before they are able to turn their lives around.

When we use this public health perspective, it is easy to see that jails–even brand new facilities with all sorts of amenities–become toxic assets. They are not a public good. Jails are associated with stigma, shame, boredom, brute violence and degradation of the soul.

Jails also depress real estate value, and some of New York’s most disliked cities, according to a popular poll, tend to have a prison in town. Think Elmira or Albion. Granted, there are state penitentiaries in those cities, but couldn’t this also hold true for smaller-scale “jail towns”?

Those prison supporters who still count on the jail system as a public good have voiced their enthusiasm for “boarding in” prisoners from other counties, as this would be a sure way of raising revenue for the bonded property, even to the point of turning a profit. Legislator Tom Hartnett mentioned the benefit of a new expansive jail, with the possibility for creating office space for U.S. Marshals, as they bring federal prisoners to the facility.

In his public statement to the county legislature, Sheriff Lee Price mentioned such an enterprising fundraiser from the 1990s. Shortly after the new jail was built, Cortland attained over $1 million in extra cash from “boarders” over a period of five years. Contrary to Price’s optimism that the prison will pay for itself, we must, as Susan Briggs emphasized, be aware that future generations will have to finance an aging and possibly out-of-use building.

What if we close a jail? Can we imagine a wellness and healing center arising from the ashes of the jail? What if we increased financial support for grant-supported buddy systems such as the Wellness Center of Cortland? This would truly be envisioning long-term goals that help us think beyond jails as a public good.

We need a public health approach to punishment, with a focus on restorative justice. It includes raising the age of criminal responsibility to about 25 years, reviewing the broken bail and plea-bargaining systems, and treating returning citizens as citizens–not as felons.

We ought to be setting our goals higher by adapting to the trends of the times. We might just want to start decreasing the footprint of a public safety center, rather than enlarging it.

Mechthild Nagel, PhD, writes on decarceration and has taught in various prisons for men in central New York, as well as in a prison for men in Germany. She is the co-editor of Thinking about Prisons: Reconsidering Global Penality, Africa World Press, 2007 and The End of Prisons: Reflections from the Decarceration Movement, Rodopi Press, 2013. She can be reached at [email protected].

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