As Black Lives Matter protests sweep across the country and coronavirus cases rise, many Dutchess county constituents feel a new jail is the last thing they need. Nonetheless, the Dutchess County Justice and Transition Center, a new jail to replace the current Dutchess County Jail, is on the Poughkeepsie government’s agenda. The Dutchess Legislature’s Budget, Finance, and Personnel Committee voted on Thursday, July 10 to not rescind the $132 million bonds issued to finance the project.
As activists, legislators and constituents gathered on Market Street before the vote, many voiced their outrage and frustration. Elijah Appelson ’23, a Vassar student and intern with the criminal justice advocacy organization End the New Jim Crow Action Network (ENJAN), explained, “The new jail will not only add to the economic and racial disparities in Dutchess County and the city of Poughkeepsie that come with incarceration, it will also likely increase policing.”
The Justice and Transition Center (JTC), part of the county’s $200 million jail expansion plan, would be the most expensive capital project in Dutchess County history. Officials downsized the new jail’s planned capacity after recent bail reform laws significantly decreased the county’s inmate population. The updated plan calls for a facility that would hold 328 inmates and cost close to $150 million.
County officials say the new facility will allow for the expansion of mental health, substance abuse and transformational rehabilitative programming services. Deputy County Executive William O’Neil commented, “I don’t think there is anyone who ‘wants’ a new jail. However, the fact remains that Dutchess County is legally mandated, under New York State County Law, to have and to operate a jail facility.” He continued, “Our current facility is a failure in many ways—failing the inmates housed there, the staff who work there, the community that inmates will return to, and the taxpayers who must pay for its operation.” O’Neil named Dutchess county’s Re-Entry Stabilization Transition And Reintegration Track (RESTART) program as a successful voluntary program that will be available to more inmates when the jail is rebuilt.
Yet critics argue that programs like RESTART can be implemented without a jail, and that solutions for bettering community health and infrastructure that don’t involve incarceration are underfunded compared to the jail. For example, Agency Partner Grants, which gives funding to local nonprofits serving community needs, provides $1.3 million of county funding over a two-year cycle. The Dutchess County Stabilization Center, which costs $2.4 million per year, lacks an onsite prescriber for Medication-assisted treatment for opioids. Residents also cannot stay at the crisis center for longer than 24 hours. “This money could have been spent to fund stronger education, better public parks, new mental health service centers and so many other important programs in Dutchess County,” Appelson commented.
Proponents of the JTC argue that the jail will save taxpayers $4 million annually since the cost of operation will be lower for the revamped facility. However, Democratic lawmakers have rejected that claim, arguing that the amount saved on staff reductions will be less than the annual debt service, which will not be paid off until the 2040s. When asked about Democratic legislators’ calculations that the jail will actually cost taxpayers more over time, O’Neil wrote, “They are wrong,” and maintained that the jail will save $4 million annually, including the debt service payments. Dutchess Legislator Rebecca Edwards, a Town of Poughkeepsie Democrat and Vassar professor, believes O’Neil’s math is incorrect, but also noted that the numbers would likely shift as she and her Democratic colleagues obtained more information from the comptroller.
Dutchess constituents voiced their concerns in letters to the legislative body before the vote on Thursday. Edwards was grateful to see the hundreds of public statements against the jail, adding, “We almost never get that type of feedback. It was overwhelming support. Thank you to everyone who wrote, we will be back in touch with everyone who emailed us.” Dutchess resident Serene Kurzum , wrote, “How is this an acceptable priority, especially now during a pandemic where physical and mental health, job security and housing are so crucial?” She continued, “Additionally, we must recognize the function of jails in systemic racism in this country. To build another jail is to put more innocent Black and brown lives at risk, when this same money could be put into investing in our communities.” Hopewell Junction resident Billy McHugh wrote, “Building a new state of the art facility will not eradicate the culture of abuse, violence and neglect that resides within the walls of any jail.”
Many Vassar students are among the voices condemning the new jail project. A letter to Vassar administrators calling for a public statement against the jail was signed by hundreds of students. President Elizabeth Bradley responded that she would not make a public statement for or against the jail. Bradley wrote that while she supports criminal justice reform and restorative justice approaches, “From what I have been told…there are complexities to the proposed plan and I do not feel I can make a statement in opposition to or in support of it.” She noted the fact that the new JTC will have rehabilitation services and other improvements upon the current jail.
Melissa Hoffman ’21, who helped draft the letter, wrote, “I find it shameful that Vassar is staying silent on this issue and won’t take the time to uplift voices in the Poughkeepsie community, a community we try to connect with…Vassar only stands with the Poughkeepsie community when it serves Vassar.” Appelson concurred, stating, “Incarceration is modern slavery and by not denouncing the building of this jail, Vassar is a bystander to systematic racial injustice in its own community. Vassar needs to make a public statement against the jail today.”
Edwards said while administrators may have not given a formal statement, the Vassar community made their opinion clear through the emails students and professors wrote to the legislature. “We heard from Vassar big time…if I had a choice between hearing from President Bradley or hearing from the hundreds of students who wrote, I would rather hear from the students.”
She explained that the next steps for the legislature are less formal. “We are having a productive conversation, we are chipping away at the jail and putting more programs into recovery…Just because we authorized the bonds, doesn’t mean they need to be spent.” While Thursday was a disappointment for many activists, lawmakers and constituents in Dutchess, Edwards says she remains “tired but hopeful.”