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State found issues at Saratoga County jail last year

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State found issues at Saratoga County jail last year

A state evaluation conducted last year found that the Saratoga County jail was not meeting a number of minimum standards related to discipline, visitation, and other areas, according to documents obtained by The Alt through a Freedom of Information Law request.

The state Commission of Correction, which oversees county jails, shared its findings with Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo in June, requesting a response that identified “actions taken or to be taken to address” them. Issues related to disciplinary policy and procedures, along with another area not considered during the April visit, remained “open” after a related visit in December 2017, according to the Commission’s February board meeting materials.

Below are some of the findings shared with Sheriff Zurlo in June:

¶ Some inmates were “administratively segregated for up to 23 hours without receiving written notification” of the reasons for their confinement, as required by state regulations.

¶ When inmates took plea bargains to resolve disciplinary matters, hearing officers did not obtain signed statements from them acknowledging they had “waived their right to a hearing” and accepted all terms. The deals also included surcharges, which can only be imposed after an inmate is found guilty through a formal hearing.  

¶ Inmates were not always allowed to visit with multiple visitors simultaneously, contrary to state regulations.

¶ Profits from commissary sales, which can only be used “for the purpose of inmate welfare and rehabilitation,” were put toward “laundry bags and some expenses for indigent inmates.”

¶ The inmate handbook suggested, through omission, that female inmates were not allowed to receive bras through the mail. Commission staff confirmed that, in practice, this was not the case, but asked the jail to clarify the handbook.

¶ The allotted outdoor exercise period for certain inmates was denied without providing them “written documentation as to the specific facts and reasons underlying this determination.”

¶ “Commission staff found that eligible youth”—inmates under 21 without a high-school diploma who have “been incarcerated in a local correctional facility” for at least 10 days and “can reasonably be expected” to be held for at least 10 more—“are not being identified or asked if they wish to receive educational services during the admission process.”

There was also a section labeled “Miscellaneous Findings” that the Commission redacted before providing to The Alt.

In response to the state evaluation, the jail said it had already taken, or would take, corrective action, a Commission spokesman told The Alt. A follow-up visit to assess this purported action will be scheduled shortly.  

Colonel Richard Emery, the jail’s administrator, did not return a voicemail left Thursday afternoon. Sheriff Zurlo did not return a message left with his secretary Friday morning. An email to the sheriff’s office, which included a request for its response to the Commission’s findings, was also not returned.

Variances for ‘double-celling’ inmates

Incidentally, in February, the Commission approved a six-month extension of two variances that allow the jail, through “double-celling” some inmates in 80-square-foot cells, to exceed its rated capacity by 48 inmates.

Each variance accounts for half of that inmate surplus. One variance has been continually renewed every 4 to 12 months since May 2013, the other since October 2008.

The jail is one of five county facilities currently operating with capacity variances, a Commission spokesman told The Alt. The state grants variances when a facility cannot comply with a particular regulation but is working to address the issue. (Facilities may be allowed to double-cell inmates without obtaining a variance if the pertinent cells are more than 100 square feet, which is not the case here.) 

A consultant-prepared “Criminal Justice/Population Trend Assessment report,” once reviewed by Saratoga County officials, “will then be provided to the Commission, at which time we can engage the county in discussions as to the next course of action,” according to state materials dated Feb. 12. The state had previously advised jail officials of “the likely need” for such a study, “as they cannot continue to rely on capacity variances,” the Commission’s 2016 annual report says.

The completed study was discussed at the February and March meetings of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors’ public safety committee, minutes show.

“Double celling inmates is not always needed however the variance beds have always been there in the event that population spikes from time to time,” the March minutes say. “The jail population as of today is 195 inmates, of which 23 are females.” Non-variance capacity is 205, and variance capacity is 255, a jail official told the committee the previous month.

Jail officials “have more than enough room to house the inmates in the facility however they run into problems when there are minors in the facility and they have to be segregated from the adults or when the female count exceeds the 32 bed unit,” according to the minutes.

The variances, which extend to Sept. 1, require that jail officials conduct another study “to determine if there is something that can be done within the existing building footprint to increase the housing capacity,” the minutes say. These reconfigurations could be completed by the end of this year, costing between $40,000 and $60,000.

Saratoga County has among the lowest incarceration rates in the state, a jail official told the committee. “Counties of similar size have much larger facilities with 400-500 inmate facilities,” minutes say.

The state recommends that inmates not be double-celled for more than two months, unless they volunteer to remain in those conditions.

Double-celled inmates are “provided the same level of access to programs as other inmates,” Sheriff Zurlo says in his variance application. “I hope that within the next (6) months the current population trend will subside, thus eliminating the need for additional bed space.”

The county is currently designing a new, $30 million public safety building, sited down the street from the jail in Ballston Spa, “which would house the sheriff’s administration, probation, emergency services and public health departments,” the Saratogian reported in mid-February. “The project is scheduled to go out for bid soon, so a contractor can be chosen and begin work by early summer.” Moving staff to this new building, if constructed, might free up space for more cells at the correctional facility.

Saratoga County jail was not among the five jails named in the Commission’s February 2018 “Problematic Jails Report,” which included the Greene and Dutchess county jails.

Asked by The Alt whether the jail’s limited capacity and use of double-celling influences her office’s approach to making release-status or sentencing recommendations, Saratoga County District Attorney Karen Heggen said, “‘No’ is the very short answer to that.”

Heggen, a Republican facing a primary challenge this year, said her office evaluates cases based on their “facts and circumstances” rather than “external factors like that.”

Photo obtained from Saratoga County Sheriff’s office Facebook page. Read a copy of the Commission’s findings from its April 2017 visit to Saratoga County jail below:

 

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