On the night of January 20th, 2013, a group of local activists and community members gathered under the light of the Bardavon Theatre’s glowing marquee in protest of a proposal to expand the Dutchess County Jail. That night, Dutchess County Executive Marcus J. Molinar0 spoke to an audience of nearly 600 at the annual state of the county address held at the Bardavon in downtown Poughkeepsie. The contentious jail expansion would figure prominently into Molinaro’s agenda for 2013.
According to the County Executive , the driving force behind the jail expansion is an issue of numbers, as the jail has a maximum inmate capacity of 292 and over 400 individuals remain incarcerated daily. This discrepancy results in a mass exodus of inmates from Dutchess County into surrounding institutions, some as far as four hours away.
As Molinaro explained in his speech last Wednesday night, “Several times in 2012 inmate population in Dutchess County exceeded 500, the number of inmates housed out is more than the number housed in.” Local legislators have mulled over this complex issue for years.
In a video statement released by the Poughkeepsie Journal on February 4, 2013, Chairman of the Dutchess County Legislature Robert Rolison offered his perspective.
“We are looking at it from the standpoint of everything that happens from the point of arrest to arraignment, to getting into the jail facility to the programs we can offer within the jail facility.” Because 90% of the individuals incarcerated in Dutchess County will return to the area upon release, Rolison described the goal of the expansion as creating a transitional facility. “We can help [inmates] re-gain their membership in their community,” he explained.
In November of 2012, the Dutchess County Criminal Justice Council issued a report entitled “Criminal Justice System Needs Assessment,” outlining an analysis of the current jail population and projected growth in the future, as well as a description of a new jail model. Massive overflow at the local jail makes it difficult for family visitation, causes inconvenience for attorneys providing services to their clients, and has resulted in a lack of effective programs offered for inmates housed at outside facilities, all culminating in a $6 million pricetag to ship the county’s inmates to outside jails last year.
Issues of race are highly implicated in this issue. Members of activist groups like Jobs Not Jails and End the New Jim Crow Action Network (E.N.J.A.N.) point to the fact that people of color are disproportionately punished by the Criminal Justice System. In Dutchess County, black people make up just over 11% of the population, however over 50% of people incarcerated in the area are black.
Odell Winfield, co-founder of the Family Partnership’s Sadie Peterson Delaney African Roots Library, began the public commentary at the Criminal Justice Council’s presentation last November. He said, “The failed war on drugs has caused a disproportionate increase of poor people and people of color in its jails and prisons. Moreover we oppose county priorities that devote more resources to incarcerating its residents than providing them with decent education, affordable health-care and safe housing.”
Community members and Vassar students alike gathered for the 18th annual Rev. Martin Luther King March for Social and Economic Justice on Monday, January 21st to rally in favor of funding for youth programs and against jail expansion. The group then met on the 6th floor of the County Legislature office building the next Tuesday, January 22nd to pressure legislators against the expansion.
As Molinaro explained in his speech, a major part of the jail expansion hinges on developing successful solutions to address the needs of women and youth, and individuals with mental health issues and alcohol and drug dependency. Vacant land that once housed the Hudson River Psychiatric Center is a viable location for the new jail, and the local government is exploring this option.
Molinaro went on to share the logistics of a new jail: “If we proceed, we will propose a “Transition Center” with a plan for separate housing facilities to deal with female inmates, those with mental health issues including drug and alcohol related behaviors, and possibly juvenile offenders,” he said, adding “This new “campus” and the saving related to it will provide a continuum of incarceration aimed at deterring criminal activity while seeking to reduce recidivism and provide individuals the tools they need to turn their lives around.”
Mae Parker-Harris, long-time local activist present outside the Bardavon last Wednesday explained her support of a more preventative approach to criminal justice, one that focuses on public programs and educational resources for young people in the area. “There are not enough programs in the City of Poughkeepsie for our youth to get involved in. We could deter crimes better if our youth had something to do instead of being on the streets,” She continued,“We need to start from the crib, instead of waiting for the trouble to start and then backtracking.”
Other community members and local legislator Joel Tyner echoed Parker-Harris’ sentiments at the protest. Many folks held signs reading “Fund Youth Programs Stop Jail Expansion” as well as lists of public programs that have been discontinued in recent years as a result of budget cuts, including Big Brothers, Big Sisters, the YMCA/ YWCA, Green Bean Community Gardening Program, and funding for Dutchess County Arts Council and Mill Street Loft.
A major concern for the protesters at the state of the county address is the question of what might happen if the jail was built. Parker- Harris stated her opinion with deep concern: “I think the criminal justice system is building a jail to put young people in it. I think that’s the plan. I’m so bothered. I cannot explain it.”