Over the past decade, Suffolk County’s jails appeared in the media as sites of violence and neglect. If incarceration is supposed to offer solutions for crime and social disorder, Long Island is yet another place where the “incarceration cure” itself resembles a crime. Now, in 2020, with record-low occupancy and scores of empty beds at both Yaphank and Riverhead Correctional Facilities, Suffolk’s jails are an overlooked financial drain for a region hit hard by the COVID-19 epidemic.
Our jail infrastructure consolidates racial injustice throughout Suffolk County.
It is time to talk about closing Riverhead Jail as the first step in addressing the county’s looming $1 billion-plus deficit and envisioning a more equitable Long Island.
In 2012, Suffolk County faced litigation from the New York Civil Liberties Union over the poor conditions inside its jails. Suffolk was sanctioned for its neglect and disregard for detainees held in “squalid, unhygienic, and hazardous living conditions that pose a substantial and ongoing risk to the men’s physical and mental health.”
Suffolk’s jails were notoriously overcrowded at the time. More than 1,700 people a night were held in institutions with a stated capacity of 1,327. In the eight years since, several shifts occurred. New York State mandated a $185 million “modernization” of Yaphank Jail in order to expand capacity. Advocates throughout the nation fought successfully for decarceration as good public policy. In January 2020, New York State’s Bail Reform law ended the unjust practice of incarcerating people awaiting trial solely based on their ability to pay bail. Legislators could no longer rationalize why two people arrested for the same crime would spend their pre-trial period incarcerated or free based on their personal wealth.
The COVID-19 crisis also prompted early release whenever possible. Rates of crime are at historic lows. For all these reasons, the number of incarcerated persons in Suffolk jails plummeted 57 percent from 1,107 in June 2019 to 474 in July 2020.
And yet, the Sheriff’s Department staffing was not adjusted accordingly. In the county’s 2020 budget, projected savings from bail reform justified a reduction in jail medical expenditures, but the county did not propose changes to the sheriff’s 1,390 staff, including its correctional officers. Meanwhile, the ratio of inmates to COs in Suffolk County is over five times the national average. Across the United States, the ratio of inmates to COs in jails is 4 to 1. In Suffolk County’s emptying jails, the current ratio is 474 inmates to 625 COs, or 1 to 1.3.
Right-sizing Suffolk’s correctional infrastructure by shutting down the Riverhead Jail and consolidating corrections at the upgraded Yaphank facility is a dynamic response to our social reality and our region’s economic hardship. In a moment when all manner of necessary social services are on the chopping block, maintaining two jails less than 20 miles away from each other, at substantial cost, is not economically feasible.
Moreover, shutting down Riverhead Jail is simply the right thing to do. Suffolk County’s jails continue to be sites of violence. The decreasing inmate population did not “fix” all problems within Suffolk’s jails. In June 2020, six Riverhead inmates suffered drug overdoses while incarcerated. A year earlier, Calvin Young, a 28-year-old father was jailed in Yaphank on a parole violation for drug possession and loitering. Unable to post $25,000 cash bail, he died while incarcerated, never able to be with his six-month-old daughter. In 2015, a wrongful death lawsuit was filed by the family of Andre Seabrook, brutally beaten by correctional staff while incarcerated. Scott Yarwood, a 34-year-old man struggling with mental illness and jailed in lieu of $750 cash bail, was found hanging in his Riverhead jail cell the previous year.
Our jail infrastructure consolidates racial injustice throughout Suffolk County and disproportionately impacts communities of color.
In 2018, African Americans, who are only 8.8 percent of Suffolk County’s population, made up over 27 percent of all Suffolk County arrests. The negative impact of incarceration on vulnerable youth is particularly striking. Black youth make up 38 percent of young inmates in Suffolk’s jails. Closing the Riverhead facility sends a strong message about the future of Suffolk County — about where we see our communities going and the investments that we are willing to make to keep incarceration rates low.
One obstacle to reducing the carceral footprint in Suffolk County, however pragmatic and reasonable closure of jails may be, is corrections officer’s livelihoods. In an area with a steep cost of living, these are steady middle-class jobs that do not require associate’s or bachelor’s degrees. Governor Andrew Cuomo spoke to this tension back in his 2011 State of the State address when he insisted that “an incarceration program is not an employment program. If people need jobs, let’s get people jobs. Don’t put other people in prison to give some people jobs. […] That’s not what this state is all about.”
With Suffolk’s incarcerated population roughly one-fourth of its 2011 peak, and the recent 420-bed expansion of Yaphank Jail, it is good public policy to start the conversation on closing Riverhead Jail.
The moral and economic imperative is clear. Riverhead public schools recently adopted an austerity budget eliminating art, music, sports, and after school programs. The cost-savings from closing Riverhead Jail must be invested in supporting our youth. As with any dying industry, there must also be a viable plan to retrain and redeploy the workers who will be displaced by the shift. Otherwise, Suffolk County will continue to run empty prisons, or even worse, recreate the conditions to justify filling them.
Dr. Abena Asare is Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History at Stony Brook University (SUNY). She is the author of Truth Without Reconciliation: A Human Rights History of Ghana (University of Pennsylvania, 2018).
Dr. Kerim Odekon is a primary care physician in Suffolk County. He is a former Policy Analyst and City Planner for the City of New York’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
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