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N.Y. county executive continues with prison closing despite concerns from sheriff

Onondaga County Sheriff Toby Shelley says he won’t move inmates until a feasibility study has been done


Onondaga County Justice Center - 555 South State St.

David Lassman/The Post-Standard

By Anne Hayes

JAMESVILLE, N.Y. — Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon Wednesday said a proposal to merge the Jamesville prison and the downtown jail will move forward despite resistance from the sheriff.

Sheriff Toby Shelley has pledged he will not move any Jamesville correctional officers or inmates until the state Commission of Correction performs a feasibility study and deems the merger plan safe.

The study has not been started and no timeline has been given as to when it would be completed, a sheriff’s office spokesperson said.

McMahon has proposed completing the merger by April 1.

“We’ll reach out to the sheriff this week to see kind of where he is,” McMahon said. “You know, as elected officials, you don’t get to ignore the legislative branch of government.”

The Onondaga County Legislature approved McMahon’s proposal to merge the facilities on Feb. 7 in a 9-8 vote during a contentious general session. The proposal was announced by McMahon and former Sheriff Eugene Conway in mid-December, weeks before Shelley took office.

After the vote, McMahon was required to host a public meeting regarding the merger. The meeting was held at 10 a.m. Wednesday. Only two people — one of them Democratic County Legislator Mary Kuhn — attended the meeting to speak.

Kuhn reiterated the concerns she voiced on the day of the vote including questioning the urgency for this proposal to be approved, the lack of communication between the sheriff and county executive offices and concerns about the logistics of merging the two incarcerated populations.

Kuhn said she continues to receive emails and letters from the public raising issues with the handling of this proposal.

McMahon said that he is well aware of public opinion but said his office has had their concerns in mind.

“I appreciate all the concerns,” McMahon said. “I also appreciate the reality that I’m the CEO of this county government.”

He also said that he does not believe the general public is concerned about the merger. He said that most complaints he has received have come from employees at the two facilities and their spouses.

“The general public at large, this is not one of their top burning issues over the course of their dinner table,” he said.

When McMahon’s office presented a plan for the legislature to vote on, he proposed a deadline of April 1 to close the Jamesville prison.

On Wednesday, McMahon said that is still the deadline unless he sees “good faith” efforts by the sheriff’s office to execute the merger that would require a few more weeks.

McMahon also said that he would not want to reopen the prison even if someday there was overcrowding at the downtown jail. Instead, he said he would recommend building a fourth tower at the Justice Center jail.

He said he does not expect to have issues with overcrowding in the near future but said a fourth tower would be more fiscally responsible than continuing to operate the prison.

McMahon said that a tower would cost $20 million to $30 million to build. He said that would account for two to three years of savings the county will see closing the prison. It currently costs around $21 million to operate.

In the short term, McMahon said if there are not enough cells downtown inmates could be sent to jails in other counties.

Shelley is meeting on Friday with sheriffs and jail administrators from local counties to discuss their ability to house incarcerated people from Onondaga County, said Tom Newton, spokesperson for the sheriff’s office.

McMahon said that he does not see the value of keeping Jamesville operating based on the possibility of overcrowding when they are spending millions to keep it open and are facing staffing shortages at the downtown jail.

“Just because we can afford to do that doesn’t mean you do that,” McMahon said. “This is the taxpayer money.”

As of Wednesday, no employees have been moved from Jamesville to the Justice Center jail, Newton said. The sheriff’s office will wait for approval from the commission of correction.

The county does not need the commission’s permission to merge the two facilities.

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