A State Supreme Court justice has ordered County Executive Edward Mangano to appoint seven volunteers to oversee the Nassau County jail, a facility that has come under government scrutiny for inmate deaths, substandard health care and poor sanitation.
Judge James P. McCormack's 17-page decision, issued March 24 in Mineola, requires Mangano to appoint the Board of Visitors within 90 days.
The ruling is a win for reform advocates who sued the county, saying its charter mandates the board of seven Nassau residents to act on inmate complaints and advise the sheriff. The advocates contend the panel will bring badly needed oversight to the troubled East Meadow facility.
"Now it is up to County Executive Edward Mangano to follow the letter and the spirit of the charter mandate by appointing seven people . . . who possess the independence and expertise to effectively oversee the jail and who reflect our community's diversity," said Jason Starr, director of the Nassau chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which spearheaded the drive to create a board.
Board of Visitors members would be empowered to "investigate, review or take such other actions as shall be deemed necessary or proper with respect to inmate complaints or grievances," the charter says. The charter also says the board should have access to jail records, have an office there and advise the sheriff on programs.
"Hopefully, the Board of Visitors will work in collaboration with the sheriff to help provide adequate and proper oversight of the Nassau County jail to prevent future incidents," said Pat Dellatto, a nurse and executive director of Second Chance Reentry, a nonprofit advocacy group that works with the NYCLU.
Nassau County attorney John Ciampoli said he was reviewing the decision to see whether the county will appeal. "We've got to take a look and analyze the case and the validity of the legal arguments." The county first contended the panel would duplicate work by other oversight boards and later Mangano said he would appoint just four members.
The provision for a Board of Visitors was recommended by the state and inserted into the charter in 1990 in the wake of complaints about jail management. But no county executive has acted on it.
NYCLU officials and other advocates brought the issue to Mangano's attention in 2011 and the agency filed the lawsuit in March 2012.
The U.S. Justice Department and county officials have twice reached legal agreements mandating changes in inmate care at the jail; first in 1981 mandating construction to ease overcrowding, and in 2002, when the government required new policies on use of force, mental health and medical care.
The second consent decree came after the 1999 beating death of inmate Thomas Pizzuto. Pizzuto, a heroin addict, was fatally beaten by correction officers after he clamored for methadone. They were later prosecuted.
The state Commission of Correction cited the jail in 2011 for violations of minimum standards, including unsanitary conditions and an over-reliance on solitary confinement.
Just this week, the state again criticized the jail, this time for improperly assessing an inmate who later committed suicide. Bartholomew Ryan, an Iraq War veteran, hanged himself in the jail in February 2012 while facing DWI charges.
His death was one of five suicides at the jail over two years, the second highest tally of any jail statewide, records show. A few weeks earlier, Long Beach resident Antwan Brown was killed during a fight with another inmate, law enforcement officials said.In court, the Mangano administration challenged the NYCLU lawsuit, saying the organization and the two plaintiffs it represented, inmates Joseph Marone and Paul Nantista, lacked standing, but McCormack rejected that argument.
When advocates first raised the issue, county officials said a new Board of Visitors could duplicate other oversight bodies, such as the state Commission of Correction, which oversees all jails and prisons in the state and monitors whether each facility meets state standards.
McCormack also rejected the county's argument that the lawsuit was rendered moot when Mangano in August named four people he was offering to serve on the board after approval by the county legislature.
The county reasoned that the four members constitute a majority of a seven-member board and could act because the four members reach quorum.
Those four individuals have not yet been brought before the legislature for approval.
"The charter itself explicitly mandates that the Board of Visitors 'shall consist of seven members, including a chairperson, each of whom shall be appointed by the county executive subject to confirmation by the county legislature.' " McCormack wrote, adding, "The word 'shall' is clearly a directive, not a suggestion."