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Onondaga County to consider consolidating jails due to staffing shortages, falling inmate population

Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon , right, with Onondaga County Sheriff Gene Conway
Ellen Abbott
WRVO news
Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon, right, with Onondaga County Sheriff Gene Conway

Staffing shortages and a plunging inmate population are prompting Onondaga County to consider consolidating the county’s two jails. But the idea isn’t sitting well with staffers at one facility.

Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon is proposing consolidating the Jamesville Correctional facility with the Justice Center in downtown Syracuse.

"By consolidating operations, we’re going to have one strong operation that’s going to meet the needs and services of our inmate population at the same time have a safe work environment for our employees to come to every day,” said McMahon.

Traditionally, the Justice Center has been the holding area for individuals who have been arrested, but not convicted. Those with sentences under a year serve them at Jamesville. In recent years, there has been more of a mixing of these two populations.

The issue that’s been brewing has been an inability to attract new employees at either location, leading to things like difficulty transferring prisoners to court appearances.

Also, thanks to New York state’s new bail laws, fewer individuals are awaiting arraignment, which creates a lower jail census. On top of that, McMahon said he’s been alerted that a seven-year-old lawsuit regarding staffing, may be reopened.

“We are certainly at risk for future litigation depending on how bad staffing is at the justice center,” he said.

McMahon wants Onondaga County lawmakers to move on the consolidation as soon as possible. He made the announcement just three weeks before current sheriff Gene Conway retires. Incoming Sheriff Toby Shelley said this urgency is all news to him.

“I was invited to coffee to the county attorney’s office, and there was no coffee, there was this bomb that fell on us,” said Shelley.

Standing with Jamesville Corrections workers in front of the suburban facility, Shelley said he is willing to look at the issue, but initially has concerns about public safety.

"If this happens, this jail will be over 90% capacity, and with 90% capacity it doesn’t leave a lot of room for different classifications. If you have two gang members fighting amongst each other for example, how do you separate them? It doesn’t leave space for COVID response."

The corrections workers at Jamesville would join custody deputies downtown. McMahon said no one will lose their jobs, which the county says are essentially the same, although workers are represented by different unions.

Toby Shelley and Jamesville workers
Ellen Abbott
Incoming Onondaga County Sheriff Toby Shelley stands with workers from the Jamesville Correctional facility

Chris Mychajlonka is Jamesville’s CSEA corrections president. He said it’s not as simple as shifting his workers downtown with a $10,000 raise. They'll lose seniority.

"They are expecting us to be at the bottom rung,” said Mychajlonka. “They expect you to work three o’clock to midnight, while somebody that has a year in, or just finished at the academy, would be able to have time on all of us. And that is wrong at the core of it."

McMahon announced this three weeks before a new sheriff, a Democrat, takes office, and says that doesn’t have anything to do with the timing.

"It doesn’t matter who’s in charge. This is a good government issue. It needs to happen and we need the legislature to act quickly."

Shelley wonders though about the timing.

"Does seem strange, doesn’t it? 22 days we have a lame-duck sheriff. 22 days. It does seem strange to me."

Lawmakers are expected to take up the issue in the new year.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.