Be a Jail Watchdog

New York Focus has published thousands of pages of county jail oversight records. Browse them in our database.

Chris Gelardi and Eliza Fawcett   ·   February 23, 2024
A magnifying glass reveals a jail cell otherwise obscured by static.
Our database offers a glimpse into the most prominent problems plaguing county jails. See how your county is doing. | Maia Hibbett

County jails are deadly places. Run by local sheriffs, the facilities see rampant opioid use disorder and suicide rates three times the national baseline. They tend to offer sub-par health care, even as they hold those most in need of treatment. The dangers are most acute in small or rural counties that receive less scrutiny.

Jails, which hold people awaiting criminal trials and those sentenced to less than a year for minor crimes, are also notoriously secretive. Each sheriff makes their own rules with little oversight. In New York, it’s up to an obscure, understaffed state agency to make sure they’re following the law.

That agency — the State Commission of Correction, or SCOC — is powerful. Its staff can access facilities and jail records, issue subpoenas and obtain court orders, and even shut problematic jails down. But as New York Focus has reported, the commission rarely flexes that power, often leaving sheriffs to their own devices.

SCOC is almost as opaque as the facilities it oversees. Only the first few minutes of its meetings are made public. And it doesn’t release its jail inspection reports — at least not voluntarily.

Last year, New York Focus filed over 70 Freedom of Information Law requests for the reports SCOC compiles when it inspects county jails, plus some related documents. We received thousands of pages of records. The documents, covering most of New York’s 62 counties, offer a first of its kind look into jail operations: procedures, problems, and state attempts — or failures — to address them.

We’re publishing all of those documents here. Our hope is that local journalists, advocates, researchers, watchdogs, and everyday citizens will use them to hold their county and state officials accountable. New York Focus has already used the documents to expose a half-baked plan to close a jail, reveal how sheriffs are sidestepping solitary confinement law, and illustrate the extent to which officials sweep incarcerated people’s official complaints under the rug.

But there’s more to uncover.

They’re jail inspection reports. Every year, SCOC inspectors visit nearly every local jail system in the state to evaluate their compliance with a subset of state corrections regulations. The inspectors go through records, interview staff, and sometimes speak to incarcerated people. They then compile these reports — known as minimum standards evaluations — with their findings.

New York Focus has used these documents in a number of investigations.

That’s where you come in.

If you’re hoping to obtain reports older than 2018 or more recent than 2023, or reports from one of the counties from which we’re missing records, you can file a Freedom of Information Law request.

Let us know! These documents and this advice are out there for anyone to use, no strings attached — but we love to collaborate. If you’re a reporter working for a local outlet, let’s talk about partnering on your investigation. If you’re a freelance journalist, pitch us. If you’re an advocate or watchdog, send us tips.

Happy hunting.

Jail Inspection Database

Use the filter to search for particular jails and inspection categories.

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
Eliza Fawcett is a freelance journalist who was recently a criminal justice project reporter for New York Focus. She has reported for The New York Times and the Hartford Courant.
Also filed in Criminal Justice

Previously unreleased disciplinary files expose officers who beat, slap, and pepper spray the residents they’re supposed to protect. Most are back at work within a month.

Local regulations haven’t kept up with the rollout of new surveillance tech. Some reformers see Washington as their best hope.

Stark disparities in access to life-saving medication for opioid addiction persist between facilities — and racial groups.

Also filed in New York State

New York’s transparency watchdog found that the ethics commission violated open records law by redacting its own recusal forms.

New York has one of the weakest consumer protection laws in the country. This year’s state budget may change that.

Guidelines limiting gifts of taxpayer resources have “no teeth whatsoever,” according to good government watchdog.