Editorial

Editorial: Public deserves more details on Westchester jail

The Westchester County Department of Correction is seen

The Westchester County Department of Correction is seen in Valhalla. (June 18, 2013) (Credit: Xavier Mascarenas)

If the ongoing affordable-housing fight with the federal government has taught Westchester County officials anything, it should be that when the U.S. Justice Department says something is "woefully inadequate" and violates a person's constitutional rights, it's best to rectify those concerns as soon as possible.

Four years after the Justice Department found systematic abuses at the Westchester County Jail in Valhalla, critics are again slamming the county for its response to those complaints. The abuses then included excessive force by correction officers, overzealous use of chemical agents such as pepper spray to subdue inmates, failing to separate juvenile offenders from adults, keeping other young inmates in isolation for more than a year, and a lack of even the most basic medical or mental health care.

Critics, including Board of Legislators vice chairman Lyndon Williams of Mount Vernon, and lawyers representing inmates who have sued the county, are claiming the jail has done little to clean up its act since 2009, when U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's office issued findings to then-County Executive Andy Spano in a report that also advised the county on the how to correct problems at the 1,700-bed facility.


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Those concerns shouldn't be locked away and forgotten, and recent ones mustn't go unheard.

This is an election year for County Executive Rob Astorino and all 17 members of the Board of Legislators, so greet the criticisms with some skepticism. But Newsday.com has reported that the Justice Department is considering a lawsuit, so the county should speak out now about how much progress actually has been made since in the years since the scathing report was released.

Jails aren't supposed to be country clubs, and corrections officers deal with a complex array of circumstances -- including handling violent criminals, people with mental illness and others with infectious diseases -- all in confined spaces. But jailers, too, have laws and regulations to follow.

The courts will eventually rule on a number of lawsuits, including one filed by a 51-year-old inmate who claimed before he died that his throat cancer went undiagnosed and untreated, and another by an inmate who claimed a correction officer grabbed his genitals and slammed his head against a wall over and over when he objected to being strip-searched.

County officials aren't talking specifics about litigation and doubt that the feds will sue them, but the array of allegations does not preclude the county from sharing how it has responded to the findings of the Justice Department's initial investigation, which began in 2007. Nor should the allegations prevent county managers from providing a detailed accounting of how the jail's medical provider -- New York Correction Care Solutions -- is living up to its $45-million contract since the county outsourced those services in 2011.

County officials would be wise to address these concerns, and others in the Justice Department's report, before they find themselves fighting the federal government on more than one front.

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