The Broome County Jail will be seeing major changes when New York state implements the Bail Elimination Act on Jan. 1.
The act aims to end monetary bail and pretrial incarceration for most lower-level offenses to promote “equity and fairness in the criminal justice system.” But Broome County Sheriff David Harder said he is concerned about the lack of thought he believes went into drafting the new law.
“If I point a gun at you and steal your belongings, if caught I have to be released on an appearance ticket,” Harder said. “I break into your residence and steal things and get caught, I have to be released on an appearance ticket. These are classified as violent felonies.”
The legislation has reignited a years-long conversation about conditions at the jail and bail reform in New York state and the Binghamton area.
Anthony Smith, a correctional officer who has been working at the Broome County Jail for approximately 11 years, voiced his concerns about the new law.
“There are no consequences for your actions anymore,” Smith said. “It’s scary.”
But a number of community organizations, such as Justice and Unity for the Southern Tier (JUST) and Progressive Leaders Of Tomorrow (PLOT), have voiced concerns about these “consequences” in the Broome County Jail, which has seen 11 inmate deaths since 2011. During their Broome County Jail on Trial Forum held on Nov. 7, JUST members expressed their support for the new bill.
“[We demand Broome County Jail] reduce the jail population by at least 70 percent by implementing fully the new state law effectively ending cash bail, providing ample community treatment facilities and other substantive alternatives to incarceration and prioritizing the release of individuals requiring treatment for substance use, disabilities and mental health issues,” JUST wrote in a release.
Although the jail does provide a medical forensic unit and a psychiatrist in their medical staff, Harder said the amount of mental health treatment the jail can provide is limited. According to Harder, about 80 percent of the jail’s population struggle with addiction or other mental health problems.
“We do have to realize, of course, that the great governor of ours in his instant wisdom has closed most of the mental institutions [and] downsized the rehab centers,” Harder said. “So, where do people end up? Here in the jail.”
Gabreella Friday, a third-year graduate student studying sociology, said during the forum that she was concerned about inmates’ mental health, among other traits, potentially making them a target for abuse.
“It has become clear to me that once you’re arrested and placed in jail, your humanity is placed on hold,” Friday said. “Your basic human rights, needs and dignities are denied. Race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or medical needs can make you a target for abuses from correctional staff. Their voices are too easily and readily silenced under the total institution of the jail.”
As a correctional officer, Smith said he is concerned about this growing perception he feels media outlets perpetuate of his profession.
“I’m not a bad guy,” Smith said. “I’m a loving husband and a father who hugs his kids every night. I’m even their flag football coach.”
Harder said the idea that race is a contributing factor of incarceration in Broome County Jail is a rumor, citing current statistics of the jail. According to Harder, for every one black inmate currently placed in Broome County Jail, there are two white inmates. Broome County is 86 percent white, according to 2018 population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Certain people try to say that if you’re black, you’re going to automatically be sent here over whites,” Harder said. “It’s not true.”
Kojo Senoo, ’19, said during the forum that he cannot separate race from Broome County’s mass incarceration issue, especially since the Ku Klux Klan previously held their New York state headquarters in Binghamton in the 1920s.
“In Binghamton, these police, these politicians, they’re enabled by these white supremacists,” Senoo said. “These white supremacists are enabled by them. We cannot tell the story of mass incarceration in Broome County without identifying and fighting against those things.”
Harder said he does not allow members from organizations like JUST and PLOT to visit the jail, even though the community organizations have criticized the jail for insufficient health care, inedible food and filthy living conditions.
“I wouldn’t let them in the building because all they would do is just be nasty,” Harder said. “They can’t be neutral. They’re totally against it. I had a couple people go through that were in this one group, and all they did was criticize the living daylights out of us. Never said anything nice about what we did.”
According to Harder, the jail is inspected by the New York State Commission of Correction multiple times a year. In their most recent inspection, Harder said they only found minor problems. Harder said the jail was also recently inspected by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care.
“They came in here and spent four to five days going through the medical part of the facility,” Harder said. “In their inspection, they make sure all of our policies are in line. We’ve passed with flying colors on that. I use the world ‘flying’ because they found no problems whatsoever.”
Pipe Dream has filed a public records request for the jail’s inspection reports.
Aside from a 24/7 nursing staff and a doctor that visits a few times per week, Harder said the jail also provides a dentist, a barber, a library stocked with law and self-help books, heating, air-conditioning and cable.
Smith said the inmates in the jail have many more amenities than he had during other parts of his life.
“It’s kept pretty well,” Smith said. “I would’ve loved to live like they do here when I was in college.”
While Harder said he receives criticism for the number of incarcerated people in the facility, he emphasized that it is not his responsibility to decide who gets put in the jail.
“The courts put people in jail,” Harder said. “All I do is hold them as the sheriff.”
As sheriff, Harder said he is hoping to see change in the Bail Elimination Act before it goes into effect.
“I have spoken to Democrat leaders who think they should take a second look at the changes that are being made,” Harder said. “We in law enforcement are asking them to delay the starting date so they can.”
Editor’s note: Senoo is a former staff photographer for Pipe Dream and PRISM.