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Onondaga County sheriff opposes vote to close Jamesville Correctional Facility

Onondaga County lawmakers are expected to vote Tuesday on a plan to merge the county’s two jails and staff members into the Onondaga County Justice Center in Syracuse, effectively closing the Jamesville Correctional Facility.

Lawmakers will be voting on items that would amend the charter and administrative code, allowing the change to go through. But they will do this without the blessing of Sheriff Toby Shelley, who is in charge of the jail system.

At a legislative committee meeting last week, Shelley went on record opposing the move.

"I respectfully request you to vote no on the matters contained in this amendment, and allow me to properly have this matter evaluated by independent professionals," Shelley said. "This will protect us in future cases that will be brought forth if done with approval of proper authority.”

More specifically Shelley said he would abide by any decision from a state Department of Corrections review of the situation. Shelley wanted to be on record questioning the timeline of the move that he said he has had no input on, since becoming sheriff a month ago.

“Despite the statements of county officials that this has been in the works for three years, it was not addressed during the budget process and no documentation was presented as such," Shelly said. "I do not understand the urgency of the matter now and why you decided to proceed with this so expeditiously.”

Shelly says if this was such an urgent matter, it would have been brought up in the budget process last fall.

Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon said it has been discussed.

"There’s committee meeting minutes over the last three years we’ve been talking about this," McMahon said. "It doesn’t matter who the sheriff is because the problem isn’t going away."

The issue stems from a staffing shortage that has interfered with a lawsuit settlement that guarantees timely court appearances by inmates. McMahon stressed the dire need to hire more personnel.

"We had 20 people sign up for a deputy custody and corrections officer test," McMahon said. "We had 11 show up. If we hire one person off that list, we won. The reality is we will have 20 retirements this year."

Shelly said since he has been on the job, the number of those missed court appointments has dropped substantially.

One of the questions that have come up about merging the jails is what happens if the jail population grows again and Jamesville is not able to handle the overflow. McMahon said has a plan.

"In the event that there’s a draconian shift in public policy, and all of a sudden we’re seeing challenges in the population, the fourth tower will be constructed to deal with that issue," McMahon said. "It’s cheaper to do that than keep Jamesville open.”

The downtown justice center was built with infrastructure in place to expand to a fourth tower. In the short term, McMahon said it also would be cheaper to send any inmate overflow population to other nearby county jails, rather than house them at Jamesville.

The plan in front of lawmakers would close the Jamesville prison by April 1. Employees who work at Jamesville would be offered jobs at the downtown facility.

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.