Dutchess County Jail is Among the State’s Worst Offenders

Dutchess County Jail is Among the State’s Worst Offenders


Our recommendations to address mental health care and education—without cost over-runs

The New York State Commission of Corrections (SCOC) recently named the Dutchess County jail as one of the five worst in New York State (The Worst Offenders), one that “pose[d] an ongoing risk to the health and safety of staff and inmates, and, in instances, impose[d] cruel and inhumane treatment of inmates in violation of their Constitutional Rights.”

This news comes a full seven years after the Benjamin Center (then called CRREO) published its study on A Collaborative Approach to County Jailing in the Hudson Valley. We were looking for, and found, ways that counties could collaborate to control or diminish operational costs while continuing to fully assure safety and professional operation. What did we recommend?

Overcrowding and boarding inmates out at great expense were big issues. They’re being addressed so we won’t look further at them here. The jail currently operates under a variance given by the Commission that allows the use of temporary dormitory pods, pending completion of a new jail addition. Construction is still in the planning phase, with completion pushed back from 2017 to 2023.

Mental Health Services:

By circumstance, rather than design, jails have become the default local institutions that confine citizens with mental health problems. A major reason is that, as a result of changes in policy enacted over decades, many state-run mental hospitals and psychiatric facilities have been shut down or severely downsized. Jail managers in our region in 2011 reported that as much as 80% of their inmate population was being treated either for mental illness or drug and/or alcohol addiction. Currently, drug and alcohol detoxification, as well as mental health treatment for all but the worst cases, is done at the jail.

The Commission report referenced two inmate suicides since 2011. It cited the jail’s medical contractor, Correctional Medical Care (CMC), for failing to identify and act upon one suicide risk (despite a documented history of suicide attempts and signs of intoxication). In the second case, jail staff and CMC failure to identify a mental illness despite the inmate reporting a mental health history, and acting strangely at his admission. Later. a CMC staffer who followed up also failed to recognize signs of mental illness, and jail staff failed to recognize signs of acute mental illness after an incident in a hallway where the inmate could not properly follow commands.

When an inmate is assessed as at risk for suicide, either at booking or at a later time, he or she must be placed on one-on-one watch for his or her own protection. One-on-one supervision (or constant watch) means what it says: 24 hour per day supervision with one officer constantly watching one inmate. This is very costly; it’s done almost exclusively by officers on overtime. Dutchess would need a major remodel to allow a single officer to monitor two or three inmates simultaneously. This requires sight lines with no blind spots, with spaces usually designed specifically for this purpose. Once an inmate is placed on one-on-one watch, he or she cannot be taken off without the authorization of a mental health professional.

In 2011 we recommended creating an intermediary secure mental health facility in the Hudson Valley that might accept inmates in need of treatment that goes beyond what a jail might effectively provide (e.g. mandating medication), but not so extensive as to warrant sending the inmate to a specialized secure mental health facility run by the state in central New York. Such a facility could provide video psychiatric evaluations at the admissions  intake of the inmate in order to determine if it is deemed appropriate to refer the inmate to the regional facility. The opportunity to seek regional solutions is diminished each time we make massive investments in another county jail.


New York State mandates that each county provides schooling for minors in jail. Worst Offenders says that Dutchess County has done an especially poor job at this.

We found that Orange County maintained an extensive education facility in its jail, and contracted with Orange County BOCES to operate a full-time school. Minors from 16-20 were mandated to attend. They were instructed in three groups defined by level of education and learning ability. Classes were held from 8-11am and 1-3:30pm. Going beyond the mandate, all inmates between the ages of 16-21 were encouraged to take vocational courses at the jail.

At any given time, the Orange County jail school enrolled 55-75 minors and 50-100 adults in its educational courses, ranging from GED and Regents high school courses to baking and podcasting. The program boasts a 97% pass rate for the GED (due to the high recidivism rate within the minor inmate population, this is a considerable number of students). Ironically, recidivism added value to the use of technology and assured some continuity in the jail’s education program. All students’ work was stored on a server so that if they left jail before the completion of their schoolwork, they could pick it up where they left off if they returned.

Implementing the collaborative regional jailing solutions we recommended for youth, women (not mentioned by the Commission) or mental health and other health services remains a heavy political lift, though it is intriguing that the state is now pushing harder than ever on counties and localities for increased collaboration, and that Dutchess has one of the strongest records in the state for its local governments working together. But even without taking such a big step, the county might get some ideas for improvement its jail operation by looking back at our 2011 study.

This is important because it was the poor screening by the medical contractor that led to the two suicides.

The End of Cheap Water

Aging Infrastructure is Driving Up Costs in the Hudson Valley

New York State has some of the oldest water and sewer networks in the country. But unlike roads and bridges, where we see the direct effects of what that means (like an axle-smashing pothole that causes accidents and lawsuits), leaking pipes are underground. We know that sometimes the water coming out of our faucets can be rusty or brown, that water main breaks can unexpectedly disrupt our commutes or errands, and that our water bills may have slowly increased through the years. But despite these impacts on our daily lives, we rarely recognize the connection to our aging infrastructure.

Or, as is the case in Flint, Michigan, and Newburgh, New York, we only know there’s a dire problem after the fact, when the water turns out to be poisonous.

Continue reading

What We Lost When We Vetoed a Constitutional Convention


Calling a state constitutional convention is New York’s long established method for fundamental, systematic governmental reform. Yet in a period of pandemic corruption and enormous anger at government, with demands for change from all across the political spectrum, New Yorkers rejected the convention option by a margin of 5-1 this past November. In essence, if 2016 was a year of great demand for change, the regret set in quickly afterward, and 2017 became a year, at least in New York, of holding fast to a system that people perceived to be less frightening than yet more change.

Peter Galie and Gerald Benjamin, co-authors with Christopher Bopst of New York’s Broken Constitution, and strong convention advocates, sat down a few weeks after the election for a post mortem. The reasons for the crushing defeat of the convention question, they thought, were both structural and political. Most voters didn’t even know there is a state constitution; they don’t distinguish between it and the revered national document, which most of them certainly don’t want to be touched in an era in which basic rights are threatened. New York has no initiative process; referenda are limited in use and unfamiliar to many as a way of making decisions. The wording of the convention question, mandated in the constitution for use every twenty years, requires that everything be on the table if a convention is called.

This scares those who have constitutionally guaranteed benefits or favored policies that they don’t want to risk.

Continue reading

Partisan Gerrymandering in New York

On Monday, October 3rd, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Gill v. Whitford, a potentially landmark case concerning partisan gerrymandering in redistricting the Wisconsin state legislature. Partisan gerrymandering, the drawing of legislative district lines to favor one political party over another, has long been commonplace for legislature at all levels of government. The Supreme Court has previously said the practice might be unconstitutional, but has never overturned a districting plan on this basis.

In New York State the redistricting process is done by LATFOR (The Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment). It is no secret that there is an agreement between the Republican-led State Senate and the Democratic-led Assembly that each house majority does their own redistricting and signs off on the other. This bipartisan gerrymandering has been the practice for a long time; the outcome in Gill v Whitford is therefore very important for New York.

Continue reading

Are Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore Our Fault?

November continued an unabated, grim chronicle of sexual assaults perpetrated by powerful men against women in positions of relative weakness or outright dependence. It’s easy (and justified) to condemn the offenders, but does the society in some measure have itself to blame as well? Dr. Eve Waltermaurer of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz has been studying violence in intimate relationships for twenty years. The results of her recent Views on Women (VOW) poll offers disquieting insights into the social context for these acts of sexual assault.

The VOW poll—supported by the Times Union’s Women@Work —randomly surveyed 1,050 New Yorkers across the state. Findings from VOW identify a far deeper societal struggle about rape and sexual assault than most of us realize, chiefly that we tend to blame the victims of these assaults, and not solely the offenders, according to Waltermaurer.

For instance, when asked if a woman dressing in provocative clothing contributes to her being raped, over 60 percent of men aged 18-35 believe it does. But it is not just men who hold these attitudes. Strikingly, Waltermaurer found that just under 45 percent of women in the same age bracket agree with this sentiment.

These disturbing poll responses, Waltermaurer says, are unfortunately part of a pattern we’ve been unable to break. And while we hear many young women speak out against these abuses and for women’s empowerment, Waltermaurer has found that younger women may actually subscribe to negative attitudes toward women who are victims of sexual violence more frequently than their older counterparts. “One reason older women more frequently reject the idea of sexual and domestic violence as ‘normal’ is that as they gain self-confidence over time they realize, ‘I don’t need to accept this.’ A younger woman, in terms of relationships, has not quite achieved this confidence.”

A chief problem is that even today, Waltermaurer asserts, we do not know how to talk about these issues, especially when sex is involved. Sex is shunned Continue reading

Elected Officials and Social Media Use: Should There be Rules?

Social Media can make government better, more accessible, more transparent, more accountable, all good things. But when elected officials decide that government social media accounts are theirs to use as they please, we may be in very different territory. Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum reminded us of that this week.

In 2015 the Benjamin Center studied how local governments in the Mid-Hudson region use their websites and social media. We found that nearly 97 percent of the towns, villages, and cities of the region had some digital presence. At the time of the study 60 percent of local governments had a Facebook presence, but barely one fifth were on Twitter. (This was in the sleepy pre-Trump era of Twitter.) In general, we found that the more open governments are with constituents, the more they engender trust.

Even though our study was conducted barely two years ago, it came against a very different societal backdrop. President Obama was behind the push for government at all levels to communicate electronically with the goal of increasing trust and accountability. These days cities like Kingston and Poughkeepsie maintain fairly active Twitter accounts and post frequently. This seems appropriate: In our fast-paced era, when even Facebook seems too onerous to peruse, governments that can blast quick info to constituents (especially missives that can be read on a phone) are reaching people quickly and simply.

But what happens to the trust that openness engenders when the public official steps out of his or her governance role, and uses official social media platforms to advance personal views, or agendas?

Once Donald Trump pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona, sheriffs around the country have felt emboldened to use social media to express their own views, sometimes using government platforms as their bullhorn. The latest but hardly the most inflammatory missive came this past weekend when Ulster County Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum used both Facebook and Twitter to tell citizens to boycott the NFL because, he argued, players taking a knee during the national anthem were being unpatriotic.

This isn’t nearly as disturbing as sheriffs in Oklahoma trying to thwart criminal justice reform through use of official social media communications.  Continue reading

Why Republicans Fear a NYS Constitutional Convention

By Michael Frank

There are more than 150 groups that are in opposition to the proposed ballot amendment for the constitutional convention. Pro-choice groups and anti-abortion rights groups. Pro-union groups and anti-union groups. Pro-gun rights groups and gun control groups. The common thread? Political power. The only logical reason these folks don’t want a New York State Constitutional Convention – a Con Con – is that they presently enjoy a toehold in Albany that they very much like. Upset the system and they have to reestablish a network and grapple with a new order where they may not have as much juice, and the last thing interest groups like is change, because it means that the power has shifted away from their control.

You know what that’s called? Democracy.

Continue reading

Lawn Signs Lie: A Constitutional Convention Will Not Threaten Teacher Pensions

The biggest threat to democracy these days isn’t the faltering executive branch of the United States government. Rather, Gerald Benjamin, founder of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz, echoes Franklin Roosevelt and says the biggest threat is fear. Fear of losing rights rather than understanding, as he puts it, “We’re living in a moment of great civic engagement. It’s been sparked by Trump and it means people are alive to both the threat to their rights and to the possibility of what can be done.”

And these two poles — fear of what could be lost as well as the possibility of what could be gained — are playing out on the state level in New York State politics this year as the debate over the constitutional convention turns on a single issue: pensions.

Continue reading

If You Want Diverse Representation, Vote for a Constitutional Convention

The last time New York held a constitutional convention abortion was illegal.

That was 1967. And despite the passage of 50 years the now legal practice is still under threat. The most recent action by the Trump Administration will, ironically, make it more common for women to need abortions (by making it harder to obtain birth control).

What’s changed since 1967, despite Trump’s actions, is that by an increasing majority Americans would like abortion to remain safe and legal.

This is even more the case in New York State. A recent Quinnipiac poll  found that New Yorkers favor a state constitutional amendment to legalize abortion by a margin of 68-27 percent.

Slam dunk, right? NYS Legislature should take this up immediately.

This right isn’t enshrined in New York’s constitution, because there has been no move to amend the sprawling document to this end. The amendment process requires two consecutively elected legislatures to vote in favor, and then the change must be voted on in a general election. While the majority of statewide constituents favor such an amendment, the NYS Senate is far more conservative than the state’s voters, making sure that abortion rights will not soon be written into the constitution.

But there’s another pathway to protect a woman’s right to choose, as well as the rights that every person of every race and religion is protected, and that LGBTQ rights are protected, even as federal efforts are actively underway to undermine them both by employers and in the military.

It’s called a constitutional convention and New Yorkers get the right to vote in favor of holding one every 20 years.

Continue reading

Achieving Excellence: Schools Can Do More By Sharing With Each Other

Increasing Educational Opportunity — and Possibly Property Values — with a New School Model

Public education, like all public assets, is under tremendous fiscal pressure. Slashed school district budgets often lead to schools cutting courses. That can mean anything from not teaching the latest computer science to stinting on the range of languages offered. And if you cannot afford to send your child to private instructors or tutors for these subjects, your kid will be behind the curve vs. children who attend schools that do offer more variety. In New York’s Ulster County, enrollment has fallen in the past half decade and the county’s students have grown poorer, as well as more ethnically diverse. All of these factors put financial pressure on the schools, especially as they seek to give their students the leg up they need to compete in an economy that’s shifted toward white collar service work.

But Charles V. Khoury, District Superintendent of Ulster Board of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES), who wrote a recent Discussion Brief for the Benjamin Center on solutions to this problem, says he has an idea for maintaining and even increasing the quality and variety of classes for all students in Ulster County. It’s called the Quasi-Magnet Model. Unlike, say, New York City, which uses magnet schools that focus on core subjects like science (and only teaches those classes to students of that particular school), a quasi-magnet system silos areas of specialization—a school within a school—then shares those classes across all districts within the county. Khoury says Ulster County’s eight school districts (or other school districts facing similar challenges) should work together to determine areas where each district could specialize—and then open those opportunities to all students in the county.

Continue reading

« Older posts
Skip to toolbar