With two inmate suicides in three years, unaddressed fire hazards, and a lack of educational services for minors, the Dutchess County Jail in Poughkeepsie is one of the worst jails in New York. Or, as Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro puts it: “It is an atrocious abomination that threatens the welfare of the people in our care, the safety of corrections officers, and diminishes any effort to engage in good community policing and restorative justice.”
A long-overdue reckoning for the jail began in March of 2016, when the Dutchess County Legislature authorized a bond for a new correctional facility. Construction began in October, and when the facility is completed—the current target date is August 2023—it will bear a new moniker that symbolizes a philosophical shift in how the county plans to approach incarceration: The Justice and Transition Center.
The name reflects an emerging paradigm in jail construction and ethos, framing jails as centers of rehabilitation rather than simply incarceration.
“Dutchess County isn’t becoming part of the trend—Dutchess County is on the tip of the spear,” says Robert H. Balkind, the Department of Public Works commissioner. For Balkind, the new facility will contribute to the center’s ultimate mission: “To provide the environment where those resources can be delivered to help people transition out of a repetitive criminal justice involvement, to help reduce recidivism, and to give the folks that are in the criminal justice system now a real and genuine opportunity to get back into society and live a productive, meaningful life.”
Unlike at a prison, occupants of the Justice and Transition Center (JTC) will not stay for years; rather, their time at the center is intended to be a period of transition. Most inmates at the JTC will await either trial or a sentence, and individuals with a sentence of less than a year can serve their entire time at the jail. Afterward, many will move on to programs, halfway houses, residential treatment homes, or other facilities meant to reintegrate the formerly incarcerated back into society.
Balkind describes the JTC as a “one-stop shop” for its occupants. “We wanted to offer a variety of programs and opportunities for those individuals to find help,” he says, “whether it was mental health needs that they needed to address, whether it was drug, alcohol, or other substance abuse issues that they were trying to overcome, whether it was providing education to teach them how to apply for a job, how to read, how to care for their children.”
But despite promises that the JTC will be different than its predecessor, there’s a growing sentiment that building more jails only perpetuates an outdated method of justice and neglects valuable alternatives to incarceration.
Is Building More Jails the Answer?
The JTC is being constructed amid what the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research and policy organization focusing on equal justice and ending mass incarceration, calls “a quiet jail boom.”
Vera’s 2019 report “Broken Jails: Why America Keeps Building More Jails and What It Can Do Instead,” concluded that although jail populations in many larger cities had decreased or plateaued, “hundreds of small cities and towns across the country have taken a completely different course and broken ground on new and larger jails.” Between 2005 and 2013, jail capacity in rural and suburban areas and midsized cities increased by 11 percent—while at the same time, criminal justice reforms in major cities led to increased investment in communities, rather than in jail beds.
“Those trends were really surprising at the time for some people,” says Jacob Kang-Brown, a senior research associate at the Vera Institute. “They follow decades of political and economic change across the country that paused a lot of these changes, but one of the factors that we see is really explaining and helping drive the growth of jails in rural areas is jail construction.”
Kang-Brown’s colleague and fellow researcher on the 2019 report, Chris Mai, says that this urban-rural divide emerging on a national level exists clearly in New York State. “In New York, what I can say broadly is that the jail population statewide has decreased over maybe 20 or 30 years, and a lot of that is driven by New York City,” Mai says.
While there are plans to replace the state’s bigger jails, like Riker’s Island, with smaller facilities, the discussions in other areas of the state tend to be different, Kang-Brown says. “It’s not unusual at all to hear someone talk about going from a 100-bed facility to a 300-bed facility, or making big increases with jail populations or jail capacity.” For instance, the Ulster County jail, which opened in 2007, doubled the rated capacity of the old facility with room for more than 400 beds. Despite the ample space, an average of just 140 inmates per month occupied the jail over the last year.
Recent bail reform in the state blocked cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, and also had an effect on the proposed scale of the JTC, which was reduced from 519 beds to 328 to better fit the expected population. That lowered the price tag for the facility more than $20 million below the authorized project budget, to approximately $133 million.
Bail reform was also the major factor in the current jail’s population drop, Balkind says. According to the census from the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services, the number of inmates at the Dutchess County Jail dropped approximately 40 percent from November of 2019 to November of 2020.
New York’s 2021 budget includes modifications to bail reform following backlash in Albany. It provides more options for release conditions and expanded bail-eligible offenses, including “trafficking offenses, money laundering in support of terrorism in the 3rd and 4th degree, child pornography offenses, repeat offenders, and those who commit crimes resulting in death.” But despite those changes, the population at the Dutchess County Jail as of November was about 157 occupants—less than half of the JTC’s capacity, even after it was reduced.
“The jail population has dropped so much that you kind of begin to wonder whether big facilities will ever be used the same way, both with the decline due to bail reform as well as the decline due to the pandemic,” Kang-Brown says.
The Cost, in Dollars and Liberty
National debates about mass incarceration have played out in microcosm in Dutchess County, as stakeholders continue to clash over the most effective approach to rehabilitation. The county’s significant investment in the JTC poses two critical questions: Will the new facility effectively meet the needs of restorative justice? And will the scope, scale, and cost of the new facility even be necessary with bail reform in place?
Reforming the prison has been a goal of Molinaro since he took office in 2012, and he has established himself as a firm advocate for the JTC, saying the new facility will run more efficiently and save $4 million annually with its direct supervision style.
Meanwhile, Minority Leader Rebecca Edwards, a Democrat, says the steep price tag for the center does not even include interest and service on the bonds. In July, she joined approximately 100 protesters on Market Street in Poughkeepsie to oppose the authorization of bonds for the JTC. The group carried signs with messages like “Fund mental health and not an unneeded jail” and “Schools not jails,” advocating for investment in community support and rehabilitation rather than another jail.
Laurie Dick was one of those protesting alongside Edwards. As a founder of Beacon Prison Rides, which provides free transportation from the Beacon Metro North train station to correctional facilities in the area for loved ones of the incarcerated, Dick says the JTC represents “missed opportunities” to invest in programs that prevent crime.
“Given what we know about how disproportionately this hits people of color, that alone should cause us to say, ‘Okay, let’s try the alternative,’” Dick says. “And let’s not take people’s liberty away, but rather figure out a means of helping people to thrive in our communities.”
Despite the dissent, Dutchess County legislators voted on July 9 against rescinding the bond authorization, moving forward with the multimillion dollar investment. According to its 2021 capital plan, the county will take on a total of $132 million in debt to construct the JTC, which will comprise the majority of the total debt issued to the county from 2021 to 2023. The plan calls for it to be paid back over approximately 30 years.
But Edwards’s qualms with the jail are as philosophical as they are financial. “In the middle of COVID—with a financial crisis, with so many other urgent needs, and with community-based programs being so much more effective and taxpayer-friendly—you can treat someone at home and help them get into an addiction program or meet other needs,” she says.
From the perspective of Balkind and the jail’s other proponents, an inmate’s time in the county jail offers an opportunity to do exactly that. “The goal of this building isn’t to simply put people away for the prescribed time; it’s to administer justice, but it’s [also] to help transition those people who find themselves within the criminal justice system to give them the tools, the knowledge, and the resources to be able to transition out of the criminal justice system,” he says.
Molinaro points to the county’s successful restorative justice programs, such as the Re-Entry Stabilization Transition and Reintegration Track program, which since 2015 has served individuals who have exhausted the county’s alternatives to incarceration and who require more targeted programs for reducing recidivism, says Principal Probation Officer Jonathan Heller. These specialized programs include Anger Management, Habits of Mind, Seeking Safety, Interactive Journaling, and Moral Reconation Therapy (enhancing moral reasoning and targeting antisocial behaviors via cognitive behavioral therapy), to name a few. The JTC will provide increased housing and programming space for this select population of inmates.
The county has other alternatives to incarceration, as well, including the Dutchess Intensive Treatment Alternatives Program for substance abuse and Project MORE (Model Offender Reintegration Experience, Inc.), which oversees the Women’s Reporting Center and other services.
But Assistant Minority Leader Nick Page says the existing alternatives to incarceration require further enhancement, and investments in other proposed rehabilitative programs have yet to materialize. Page and other legislators put forth a resolution requesting a feasibility study for a youth court or youth restorative justice program; in December, the county’s Office of Probation and Community Corrections announced that it would not be pursuing that program.
“We just feel that the current services and plans for future services are heavy on rhetoric and short on substance,” Page says. He agrees that the existing building requires a significant renovation or, more likely, a replacement.
“The question is what scale and to what extent, and how, do you also invest in alternatives? The scope and scale of investment here is just grotesque compared to the lack of funding for positive community programming.”
With construction already underway for the new facility, the end draws near for one of the worst jails in the state. Its replacement represents lofty reform ideals to its supporters and a drastic overinvestment to its opponents. Whether the JTC will actually improve criminal justice hinges on the county’s investment in programs administered during and after incarceration, more than the physical structure itself.
“I absolutely believe that we have to wipe clean the history of the 1984 jail and everything it represents, and start again,” Molinaro says. “We have an opportunity to do it right.”