Editorial: Sullivan County must get jail expansion right

Editorial Board • Oct 16, 2019 at 3:30 PM

As our recent series of stories made clear, overcrowding at the Sullivan County Jail has been a problem for decades because a series of expansions failed to accommodate an ever-increasing inmate population.

Is the county about to repeat those failures?

A consultant recommends taxpayers spend about $85 million to build a jail that would more than double current inmate capacity from 621 to 1,400. The consultant says that will be sufficient for the next 20 years provided various programs reduce needed jail space by about 15 percent. That’s an expensive, high-stakes gamble. If those inmate reduction programs don’t work, taxpayers will lose.

The jail already is pushing an inmate load of 1,100. At recent rates of increase, the new stated capacity will be overwhelmed and surpassed well before the new jail is paid for. At that point, the county will be right back to where it has found itself on multiple occasions through the years.

The county needs a new jail, and the consultant has several proposals for how it should be built. But most important is to ensure this latest jail expansion — the most costly in the county’s history — will in fact be adequate for the next several decades at the least. What is that number? Is it 1,400, or 1,800, or even more? We don’t know, but it is imperative the county get this right.

In 1955, voters approved a referendum to spend $200,000 on a new jail because the current facility had been at capacity for some 20 years. By 1974, it was at capacity again, and inmates sued in federal court complaining of a constitutional violation of cruel and unusual punishment. They won. The court ordered the population be reduced within a timetable, that the county’s “workhouse” which housed 20 inmates be closed, and that the county erect a prefabricated metal structure for such use. The new jail opened in 1986 with a capacity of

317. It quickly reached that capacity.

By the turn of the century an expansion project brought the main jail’s capacity to 353 for a total of 449 beds, including the jail annex. But in 2003, the annex was closed, leaving the county with only 383 inmate beds.

Then in 2005, the county built another new jail referred to as an “extension” — though it was not connected to the main jail. That gave the county its current capacity of 621 beds, but in recent years the two facilities have been holding 800 to 900 inmates. Inmate load hit 1,000 earlier this year.

An advisory committee on the jail recommended just two years ago that a new facility have a capacity of 1,000, and we’re already well beyond that in part due to regional crackdowns on increasing drug use. As the county moves forward on its latest new jail, its approach should be to learn from history: don’t underbuild; do overbuild.

Or perhaps there should truly be a new jail. The cost difference in an ineffective, undersized expansion and a new jail is — in the grand scheme — negligible.