How Not to Close a Jail

A surprise plan to shutter a jail in Syracuse’s Onondaga County spurred a chaotic political skirmish — and left local incarcerated people in the lurch.

Chris Gelardi and Chris Libonati   ·   October 5, 2023
The impending closure of the Jamesville jail sent shockwaves around Syracuse. Now it's on hold. | Aerial view of Jamesville: Google Earth | Illustration: Maia Hibbett

The plan to close Jamesville Correctional Facility caught Tobias Shelley off guard.

The new sheriff of Onondaga County, home to Syracuse, had less than a month left before taking office. He’d already struggled to communicate with Eugene Conway, the man he was set to replace. He’d barely heard of the plan on the day, last December, when Conway joined County Executive Ryan McMahon to announce the closure. They had not briefed the man who would oversee it.

Shelley worried that closing Jamesville, the second of Onondaga County’s two jails, could exacerbate problems at the main jail, listed in 2018 by a state oversight agency as one of New York’s “most problematic local correctional facilities” — by some measures worse than Rikers Island. Known as the Justice Center, the jail has been plagued by deaths, lawsuits, and charges of medical neglect, including by a woman who gave birth in her cell to a premature baby, who died hours later. The mother’s cries went unheeded for days.

Shelley didn’t know it yet, but the oversight agency had found that the sheriff’s office repeatedly failed to fix the jail’s problems. Jamesville was a relief valve, and closing it would strip the sheriff’s office of a mechanism to reduce population pressures at the notorious main jail.

The plan set off a chaotic political skirmish in Onondaga County. Officials and advocates picked their sides, taking stances that resisted ideological expectations. Most county Republicans, like Conway and McMahon, want to raze the facility as quickly as possible, arguing that it would save the county millions. Democrats like Shelley, as well as some formerly incarcerated activists, charge that a hasty closure will hamper efforts to improve jail conditions.

Stuck in the middle are the more than 500 people the county incarcerates on any given day, who have for years suffered through the sheriff’s department’s dysfunction.

“It’s a dumb idea. … It’s not well thought out,” Chris Ryan, the county legislature’s Democratic minority leader, told New York Focus and Central Current. He said the legislature didn’t hear about the closure plan until Conway and McMahon announced it to the public. Two months later, they passed it: The Republican-controlled body approved the plan by a single vote in February, then temporarily paused it this spring.

There have been at least six deaths at the Justice Center over the past two years — nearly six times Rikers Island’s death rate.

Closure skeptics worry that an increase in jail populations could push the Justice Center, already one of the most crowded jails in the state, past its limit. And an incarceration upturn could be coming: In 2021, Governor Kathy Hochul pushed through bail reform rollbacks that made more people eligible for pretrial detention. This April, she forced another pretrial change that made it easier for judges to send bail-eligible people to jail.

The closure announcement, meanwhile, came just two months after news that the microchip manufacturer Micron would undertake one of the largest industrial projects in state history in Onondaga County — fueling a real estate and infrastructure development scramble. The secondary jail, which sits on a 166-acre campus in the suburb of Jamesville, is a 20-minute drive from the planned facility.

Shelley’s team insists that he walked into the closure plan essentially blind, and he wants state authorities to weigh in. But the agency that compiled the 2018 list — called the State Commission of Correction, or SCOC — has proven toothless. Despite repeatedly citing the Justice Center for violations of state jail standards, the commission has neglected to sanction or punish the county. Despite having a mandate to assess such decisions, it has issued no public reports or statements about the closure plans.

Conway, for his part, failed — or declined — to help Shelley transition into the office. Since the election, the current and former sheriff have not spoken.

Conway did not respond to multiple calls and voicemails from New York Focus and Central Current.

“There’s no way Toby would have known the flaws in the jail because there was no transition, no dialogue,” a spokesperson for Shelley said.

Closure skeptics worry that an incarceration upturn could push the already-crowded Justice Center past its limit. "That whole place is crazy," said activist Yvonne Griffin. | Chris Libonati for Central Current

Alarmed, Shelley requested a “feasibility” study from the State Commission of Correction, through which the agency would assess the possible consequences of closing Jamesville. But the agency, staffed with corrections experts, doesn’t want to weigh in on the debate.

A SCOC spokesperson said that staff have visited Onondaga County and have been “monitoring and reviewing plans for renovations, upgrades, safety improvements and other issues related to the closure,” but didn’t answer questions about a formal study.

“It’s a dumb idea.”

—Chris Ryan, Onondaga County Legislature

Internally, SCOC showed its own signs of alarm. Conway and McMahon hadn’t told the commission about their plans, either; as its chairperson wrote in a December 2022 letter obtained by New York Focus and Central Current, SCOC learned about them via press reports. And while SCOC reserved judgment on whether the closure was a good idea, “there are crucially important issues that necessitate a thorough review,” the chairperson wrote.

County legislators who voted on the plan said they’ve heard nothing from the state. SCOC responded that no one from the legislature has contacted them.

But SCOC does have relevant information. Documents obtained by New York Focus and Central Current shed some light on what the commission hasn’t made public: Reports from jail visits conducted by SCOC staff since 2019 portray a chaotic carceral system that has for years been resistant to change.

New York Focus obtained SCOC reports from Onondaga County via a Freedom of Information Law appeal. Known as "minimum standards evaluations," the reports are the main mechanism by which SCOC reviews jails' compliance with state corrections regulations.

The reports, spanning 2019 to 2023, can be read in full here.

Not least among the Justice Center’s issues is a lack of space. The 2018 list pointed to “significant” overcrowding as a source of its dysfunction, and “the facility could experience future operational overcrowding” if the county closed the Jamesville jail, SCOC wrote in its December letter.

Proponents of the closure, like McMahon, have pointed out that New York’s 2019 bail reforms and pandemic-related jail population reductions have driven the two facilities’ combined population below the Justice Center’s maximum capacity. But you can’t rely on maximum capacity, since part of the facility is routinely out of commission — like it is now.

“When you have buildings that are this old, you’re never going to have all your beds,” Shelley said.

As of February, the Justice Center had 575 beds available, according to documents obtained by New York Focus and Central Current. The jails’ combined population has never dipped below 82 percent of that, and rose above 100 percent for six months in 2021. In February, the state’s 62 county jails outside of New York City were just over half full on average, per SCOC data. The Justice Center was the fifth fullest in the state.

If the two jails were combined, “you would use almost every available bed, which leaves almost no wiggle room,” Shelley said.

Beyond that, jails have to consider much more than raw bed space.

Federal and state rules dictate who can be around whom in a jail, a concept known as “classification.” The Justice Center has for years failed to adhere to such regulations, according to SCOC reports.

Since at least 2016, SCOC inspectors visiting the Justice Center have found people classified as maximum security housed with minimum security incarcerated people. The sheriff’s office, then under Conway, told the commission that it had been mixing security levels “for more than 23 years.” SCOC called that “unacceptable,” so Conway told SCOC that the jail was revamping its classification system. But inspectors found the same issue when they returned in 2017 — then again in 2019, again in 2020, and twice in 2022.

“It’s dangerous — it puts people at risk,” said Yvonne Griffin, who has been jailed at the Justice Center several times since 2016. Griffin, a local justice activist, has come out against the Jamesville closure because of the chaos it could cause at the main jail. “That whole place is crazy,” she said.

Posed with the possibility of overcrowding, McMahon has proposed paying other counties to house excess people in Onondaga custody in the short term, and eventually adding a wing to the Justice Center. (Construction would cost between $20 and $30 million, according to McMahon, comparable to the Jamesville jail’s $21 million annual operating cost.) His coalition suggests that the closure plan will also help abate an ongoing staffing crisis, which SCOC has documented since at least 2017.

The Justice Center has also had recurring trouble separating genders. In 2019, SCOC inspectors found that the jail was housing men and women together in its infirmary unit. The sheriff’s office told the commission that it had updated its policies and was going to “explore” possible renovations to create more room. Inspectors encountered the same issue the following year.

As the jail has struggled to solve the classification puzzle, housing requirements have only gotten stricter. In 2021, the state legislature passed a solitary confinement reform law that imposed strict limits on prisons’ and jails’ use of isolation. Even before that law went into effect, SCOC inspectors filled six pages of a report with Justice Center isolation violations. Officers were housing people in so-called “dry cells” with no plumbing or furniture. They weren’t giving people in isolation appropriate recreation time, access to classes, or more than one book to read. They were taking people’s mattresses and clothes, turning off their water, and putting them in suicide prevention smocks without supervisor permission.

SCOC found more problems after the law took effect. Now, jails must let everyone in their custody out of their cells every day — for at least seven hours in most cases, and four in the most extreme. Inspectors found that under Conway, the Justice Center was letting some isolated people out of their cells for less than two hours a day, mostly because they didn’t have enough space to let them all out at once.

“I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

—Sheriff Tobias Shelley

The chaos has continued under Shelley. In less than nine months since he started, there have been at least three deaths at the jail, as many as in the previous two years. (Because of their differing populations, this gives the Justice Center nearly six times the death rate of Rikers Island.)

SCOC has the authority to petition a court to sanction uncooperative jails. Yet despite the recurring issues, it has taken no action against Onondaga County. “The Commission views litigation as a means of last resort,” a spokesperson said in a statement, “employed only when compliance cannot be achieved via collaboration with a local correctional facility.”

Despite soliciting SCOC’s input, Shelley has taken after his predecessor in earning inspectors’ ire. In March, he told SCOC that he hadn’t done anything to fix the fact that the Justice Center wasn’t offering the law’s minimum amount of in-person visitation. He “disagreed” that the jail needed a more formal process for incarcerated people to file grievances. To two other citations, he did not respond.

“I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” Shelley said when asked about his responses. “I haven’t had a lot of time.”

County Executive Ryan McMahon (right) sits with Deputy County Attorney Benjamin Yaus. | Chris Libonati for Central Current

The man who presided over many of these problems wanted to be in Shelley’s shoes. Esteban Gonzalez, the former chief of the Justice Center, is an ally of Conway and McMahon’s who ran unsuccessfully for sheriff as a Republican. Upon losing, he landed a job in McMahon’s administration overseeing public safety projects, including those related to the Micron development.

A county spokesperson said the jail closure is outside Gonzalez’s purview. It is being overseen by McMahon and two deputies, they said, and then stopped responding to follow-up questions. McMahon did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him by phone.

If nothing else, the political battles have hobbled the closure plan.

McMahon appears wary of Micron-related speculation: In February, he introduced a one-year moratorium on the sale of the land where Jamesville currently sits. (The moratorium will expire in four months, and heavy construction on the Micron plant won’t begin until next year.)

This spring, the county paused the plan pending repairs at the Justice Center, which remain ongoing.

And in June, Shelley sued Onondaga County, claiming that the legislature doesn’t have the power to close Jamesville without putting the issue to voters in a county-wide referendum. The county is currently trying to convince a state court to dismiss the case.

If the way the battle began is any indication, finding a compromise may take some time. Shelley said he’s been trying to wrap his head around the closure plan since day one, when he walked into his new office headquarters and found all the keys to the filing cabinets in a pile, with no indication of which drawers they unlocked.

Eliza Fawcett contributed research.

Chris Gelardi is a reporter for New York Focus investigating the state’s criminal-legal system. His work has appeared in more than a dozen other outlets, most frequently The Nation, The Intercept, and The Appeal. He is a past recipient of awards from Columbia… more
Chris Libonati is the interim managing editor of Central Current, a nonprofit news outlet based in Syracuse that covers Central New York. He previously worked for the Syracuse Post-Standard, covering crime, policing and city government.
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