[Content Warning: This article makes mention of suicide.]
On Jan. 20, 2013, a group of local activists and community members gathered in front of the Bardavon Theatre to protest the proposal to expand the Dutchess County Jail. Nearly six years later, a new law enforcement center for the county sheriff ’s offices is complete, but the Dutchess County Justice and Transition Center (DCJTC) is still years from completion.
The DCJTC is the new jail under construction at the site of the original Dutchess County Jail site. It is also the second phase of the county’s $200 million jail expansion plan, with the new law enforcement center being the first. The 297,000 square foot center, which will house 569 inmates and save taxpayers more than $5 million annually, will address the county’s longstanding capacity issues (Dutchessny.gov, “Dutchess County Justice and Transition Center”).
For years, the county relocated over 200 inmates to other county jails in the state due to the jail’s capped 257 inmate capacity. This encumbered family visitation due to distance, inconvenienced attorneys providing services to their clients and resulted in a lack of access to rehabilitative services offered for housed-out inmates (The Miscellany News, “Dutchess Community protests jail expansion,” 02.07.2013). For county taxpayers, the overflow costs an estimated $6 million a year (The Poughkeepsie Journal, “Dutchess County Jail one of the worst in the state, report says,” 02.14.2018).
In its long-term goal to expand the original jail, the county opened temporary housing units at the jail site in May 2015. The units, which save the county $1 million annually, will house inmates at its 200 inmate capacity until the DCJTC’s 2023 completion date (Dutchessny.gov, “Temporary Housing Units (PODS)”). However, when the county held a total of 485 prisoners in 2017, 40 inmates were boarded at the Ulster County jail in Kingston (The Dailyfreeman, “Dutchess County’s new jail could be too small, sheriff warns,” 08.01.17).
The jail’s total number of inmates dropped to 380 in November 2018, but capacity is not the only issue for which the jail has been cited (The Poughkeepsie Journal, “Dutchess jail can use size to its advantage: Editorial,” 12.13.18). The Dutchess County Jail is one of the worst in the state, according to a 2018-released report by the New York State Commission of Corrections. In addition to its overcrowding issues, the report highlighted the county’s delays in the development of a new jail and inmate suicides due to a lack of medical care (Auburnpub. com ”The Worst Offenders: The Most Problematic Local Correctional Facilities of New York State,” 02.14.18). The new jail is significantly delayed from its original 2017 goal.
In 2011, one inmate hanged himself, and another did so in 2014. The 2011 inmate death was found by the commission to have resulted from a misprescribed medication and a failure to address a previous suicide attempt (The Poughkeepsie Journal, “Dutchess County Jail one of the worst”). Prior to the 2014 inmate’s death, jail staff failed to refer the inmate to mental health services despite his mental health history (The Poughkeepsie Journal, “Dutchess County Jail one of the worst”).
In addition, eligible youth did not have access to educational services and inmates did not exercise for the amount of time required by the state (The Poughkeepsie Journal, “Dutchess County Jail one of the worst”).
The jail expansion is the largest capital project ever undertaken by the county, according to County Comptroller Robin Lois (The Poughkeepsie Journal, “New Dutchess County jail on budget, schedule, according to the comptroller,” 05.22.18). Prior to their interviews, Arlington resident Jessica Van and City of Poughkeepsie resident Melanie Johnson were unaware of the project. However, they did express their disapproval of it.
“I don’t think that we need another jail. I think [prisoners] should be rehabilitated,” Van said. “Most [prisoners] are in [jail] for petty crimes. And children who are caught in the system should be rehabilitated. [We] should be helping our children to be better people. If our children are on the streets, it’s not their fault. We don’t have after-school programs. Parents are doing the best they can.”
Johnson pointed to problems in the city’s school system. She highlighted, “We have one library in the city, no books in the schools and the YMCA that needs to be reopened.”
Reverend of The Potter House in Poughkeepsie Curtis Whitted bought the former YMCA building on Montgomery Street in 2014 after it closed. He hoped to revitalize it into a family community center but has made little progress due to insufficient funds for tax liens and renovations (The Poughkeepsie Journal, “Future of former YMCA uncertain,” 06.03.16).
Johnson explained further: “We don’t need another jail, we need better education. They just started the after-school program for elementary school, and it’s limited. But the police department has brand new SUVs. [The jail] is a business. They get $800 to $900 a day per inmate. They have transition in the name, but if they’re just using [the facility] to lock more people up, then it’s not right.”
While the new jail will provide more space for inmates, it will also offer more room to expand the county’s rehabilitative and re-entry programs and improve access to medical and mental health services. It is expected to serve special populations, including those with substance abuse or mental health issues, with housing units designed to address their needs (The Poughkeepsie Journal, “Dutchess Sheriff ’s Office set to move in early 2019,” 11.27.19).
But Tracy Given-Hunter, member of End the New Jim Crow Action Network, does not think that a new jail will not solve the county’s criminal justice issues. She stated: “That is their claim, but make no mistake, these are still cells. If your goal is to keep [inmate] numbers from increasing, what are those proven practices [to keep the numbers down]? Why aren’t more people in Alternatives to Incarceration? If that were happening, we wouldn’t need these 500 beds.”