Last month, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro announced in his State of the County address that Dutchess will move forward with plans to construct a new correctional facility to accommodate an overflow of inmates in the Dutchess County Jail.
Although the project has only recently gained considerable press coverage and attention from local activists, the Dutchess County Jail has faced the issue of population overflow for nearly fifteen years.
As Rachael Borné reported in last week’s issue of The Miscellany News, the Dutchess County Jail is capable of housing 292 inmates; however, the County currently incarcerates over 450 people. The remaining prisoners are transported to jails in neighboring counties, costing Dutchess roughly $6 million per year. According to Molinaro, these costs will continue to grow by $2 million annually if nothing is done to address the problem.
This inmate overflow is a serious issue for the Dutchess County community. Not only does transporting incarcerated people out of the area make it difficult for families to visit their loved ones, it also puts roadblocks between inmates and social services like rehabilitation programs and legal counseling. Given these issues, it seems intuitive that the County should begin constructing a new jail.
However, opponents have raised several reasonable concerns with the new jail. Many community members believe in the “if they build it, they will fill it” mentality and argue that Dutchess County should be pushing for more preventative measures rather than acting on the defensive.
Within the last few years, the local government has discontinued the GED program for inmates. There are few existing community re-entry programs; funding has been eliminated for the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, the YMCA, the Green Teen Community Gardening Program, and the Youth Bureau and Project Return program. In addition, within the last three years the Poughkeepsie School District has moved from full day to half day kindergarten and has cut funding for music and art programs.
As a result, we at The Miscellany News feel that a compromise is necessary in order for progress to be made. We side with opponents of the jail in our support of public services, re-entry programs, and directing more money towards education in Dutchess County. However, we must acknowledge that the individuals currently incarcerated off site in counties spread far and wide are suffering. We cannot ignore the needs of either group.
We believe that any addition to the existing jail must increase the capacity for programs offered to those incarcerated, ones that are rams comparable to Newark’s Fraternity for Fathers Behind Bars, GED programs, and substance abuse treatment programs. We also encourage the addition of more visiting spaces, as the current jail has only one non-contact booth. These adjustments and renovations do not necessitate an entirely new jail, especially considering the cost of a new jail would exceed $100 million.
By moving forward with a renovation of the existing jail in Dutchess County rather than the construction of an entirely new facility, men, women and young people arrested in Dutchess County will be able to complete their sentences in Dutchess County. Not only would this make it much easier for people behind bars to access important services offered in the local area, it would also keep inmates closer to their families.
With the money the criminal justice system would save by increased capacity for inmates and strictly in-house incarceration, we believe the local government must invest in programs for the mentally ill and those with substance abuse issues. According to a report published by the Dutchess County Criminal Justice Council, 80 percent of inmates have had a history of treatment for a substance abuse disorder, a mental health disorder, or both prior to incarceration. Such a compelling statistic must be taken into consideration when moving forward with any renovations to the jail.
Rehabilitative services are critical. We advocate a criminal justice system built on the philosophy of healing rather than punishing.
The same report also explains that the population of inmates under the age of 21 can be as high as 15 percent at times, and the female incarcerated population on average represents 10 percent of the inmate population. Again, the special needs of these groups must be met, and we urge members of the Dutchess County government to consider alternatives to incarceration (ATIs) as they progress with their decision.
We must ask ourselves why so many young people are incarcerated from Dutchess County, and why so many of them are people of color? These questions must figure prominently into any conversation about a jail expansion or renovation.
In addition to our plea to the local government, we also call on the Vassar student body to stay informed about the jail expansion debate. Prison programs and courses on mass incarceration,
racism and the criminal justice system have enriched the educational and life experiences of many students on campus. With this critical framework, we must stay involved and informed about the criminal justice system and the needs of incarcerated people in our own college town.
Vassar College is a part of Dutchesßßs County, and our campus shares an definite bond with the local community. It is critical that Vassar students remain informed and engaged with everything going on outside its boundaries. Participating in this discussion about the Dutchess County Jail is a great place to start.
—The Staff Editorial represents the opinion of at least 2/3 of the Editorial Board.