October 30, 2003

Tompkins Co. to Modernize Jail

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The Tompkins County Public Safety Committee approved a proposal two weeks ago to expand a local jail by a vote of 3-1, with one member absent. The renovations are expected to cost $15.75 million and will modernize the jail, which is located near the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport on Warren Road.

The jail, which was originally designed to house 73 inmates, currently holds up to 103 due to special variances granted by the New York State Commission on Corrections. When renovations are complete, the jail will be able to house 104 people without having to rely on such variances, which the corrections commission told the county it would rescind if the county did not show significant progress toward renovation.

The additional housing currently comes from converting single cells into doubles and putting more inmates in the dormitories, but “those are all just temporary fixes,” said Barbara Blanchard ’66, chair of the public safety committee.


The proposed changes will not only renovate the existing portions of the jail, including administrative space and dormitories for inmates, but will also introduce modular pods for cell space. Each pod will contain 24 beds. The plans provide for a total of six modules, two of which will be included in the current plans and four of which will be added in the future as necessary.

Each pod consists of individual cells arranged around a common area. Various sections of the pods can be isolated if necessary to control the inmates, who will be watched over by two guards, one stationed in the center of the common area and one roving. According to county administrator Stephen Whicher, this is a great improvement over the current arrangement.

“Two people can take care of 48 people, and that’s a huge advantage,” he said.

Tim Joseph, chair of the Tompkins County Legislature, said that the plan “gives us a more efficient way of running a jail,” which is significant because about 80 percent of the jail’s budget is its operational cost.

The renovations are not only important because of the increased occupancy they will provide, but also because they will modernize the jail. “Quite aside from numbers, the building itself is in need of serious work,” Joseph said. Such work includes the heating and ventilation system and electronics used for doors and the security system. Whicher said that jails wear down quickly because they are constantly used, and that the “infrastructure of the jail itself is breaking down.”

Other renovations will be targeted towards improving services for the inmates. According to Blanchard, these include space for juveniles, medical needs and educational programs covering topics such as drugs and life-management skills.

The proposal did not go without dissent. “Frankly, there’s a bit of disagreement,” said Joseph, explaining that some people think that the jail population will increase in the next few years, while others believe it will decrease. “I think the trend [in crime] will be down,” he said, “because we are taking steps to make it be downward.”

He said that the jail’s population has been declining for about four years, although before that it increased rapidly for about 20. He also noted that jail populations are prone to great fluctuation, making it hard to predict future needs. Nevertheless, Joseph supports the proposition due to the improvements and the lower operation costs it proposes.

According to Blanchard, however, “there wasn’t a lot of controversy [about the decision]. … It just boils down to a couple people [who] don’t like spending money on jails.”

She also said that just keeping the building running as it is would require a $7 million project, so it made sense to spend the extra money to improve it for the future.

The next step in the process is the completion of the full schematics for the project, which Whicher said would take about six months. He said that bidding for the construction contract will start in the fall, which is financially advantageous because that is when bids are lowest. Construction is planned to start early in 2005, with completion slated for some time in 2006. Whicher believes that the new building will be usable for at least 10 years, and the flexibility of the design will allow for increased longevity.

Archived article by Yuval Shavit