BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — Conditions at the Otsego County Jail have been deteriorating for years. A recent report found the building is in need of repairs. Even the jail’s central layout is in a design no longer approved by New York’s Commission of Correction.
The county sheriff, Richard Devlin, commissioned the report by SMRT, an architectural firm. Devlin said the neglect and outdated design has caused poor living conditions for people in the jail, and made his staff’s work more difficult.
“It’s an ancient way of doing things”
In most jails built today, each cell is a room, with a door like you’d have in your bedroom. In Otsego County Jail, people are still locked behind bars each night. The facility is laid out in a “linear” design, like the jails of old movies, essentially a hallway with cells running alongside it.
Lieutenant Daryl O’Connor, the jail’s administrator, said even the sound of the cell doors closing is disturbing. He said being locked in behind bars is isolating and inhumane for the people in the jail.
“It’s an ancient way of doing things, really. I mean, every new facility that’s been built is a podular system, every county that touches us is a podular system. We are actually the last facility that the commission approved to build in the linear design, back in 1990,” O’Connor said.
The more modern “podular” system involves individual rooms centered around one living space. One officer stays in the space and can watch the whole area, rather than making rounds. And the chairs aren’t bolted to the ground.
Graham Vickers is one of the architects who worked on the report. He said most people are used to a chair moving a bit when they sit in it.
“You sort of shift it so it’s perfect for you to sit down, because you get to decide the way that that chair is situated when you sit down in it. If it is a stainless steel stool bolted to the floor, you don’t and it is abnormal, and you act abnormal in an abnormal environment,” Vickers said.
“The conditions here, they’re not acceptable.”
It’s not just that the style of the jail is old. The building itself is falling apart due to a lack of maintenance.
The recent report, which hasn’t been made public yet, cited safety, health and structural issues. Rusting doors that won’t open all the way, creating a fire hazard. There are leaks, and decaying exterior walls.
The report found bathroom and housing units that don’t meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards, and limited or substandard space for medical treatment and recreation.
Between maintenance issues and staffing shortages, Otsego has been forced to send incarcerated people to other jails. The jail currently has 26 people boarded in surrounding county jails.
County Sheriff Richard Devlin said it’s important to remember that many people jailed in Otsego have not been proven guilty. They’re awaiting trial. And they’re likely from the area.
“Most of our incarcerated people are family members of somebody, a brother, a father, a sister, you know, they’re local people. They’re not people from far away. These are local people. Their stay here is going to impact them,” Devlin said.
Devlin said the jail’s neglect is also leading to low morale among staff. He said that’s made it even harder to keep correctional workers.
Ideally, Devlin said, he’d like to replace the whole building. But one way or another, he said the county needs to make a plan.
“Because the conditions here, they’re not acceptable. I mean, that’s the bottom line. They’re not acceptable for our workers, they’re not acceptable for the incarcerated population,” Devlin said.
Choosing between repair and replacement
Devlin said he’s been advocating for repairs to the jail since 2011.
It would cost over $60 million for the county to build a new jail, according to SMRT’s consultants. Vickers told the County Board during a meeting last month that the best route would be to start with short-term repairs, while looking into a plan for a new jail.
During that meeting, County Administrator Josh Beams said the county has fixed some of the issues, such as a broken water heater and intercom system. He said only $25,000 of the nearly $120,000 dollars slated for repairs at the jail has actually been spent.
Right now, Beams said the main obstacles are supply chain issues. But he said in the past, before he was hired, a lack of communication between the county and the Sheriff’s office made repairs difficult to coordinate.