The long-awaited jail to ease Suffolk County's overcrowding problem is open for business, and the first few dozen inmates are checking into their new Yaphank quarters.
It is a low-rise building equipped with high-tech surveillance cameras that can beam into the housing pods or read a license plate from hundreds of yards away. The housing areas are airy and carpeted -- a noise-reduction feature -- and furnished with flat-screen televisions.
Phone kiosks inside the units allow inmates in color-coded jumpsuits to connect with relatives with ease. They use a touch screen to order items from the commissary, access computers and have the equivalent of house calls from medical staff who can treat them in their housing areas.
An all-purpose gym area lets inmates charged with all types of crimes play basketball and other games amid natural air and sunlight.
'Direct supervision' model
Corrections experts rave about the design, saying it is state-of-the-art and offers a calmer and safer environment for everyone, balancing inmates' freedom with the right dose of security. Because programming, meals and some medical care is done in the housing areas, the design largely keeps inmates in one place for much of their stay.
The problem, though, for Vito Dagnello, president of the Suffolk County Correction Officers Association, is that the new place is too cushy for inmates -- and it is a potential death trap for the one officer who must maintain order among 60 inmates with no bars separating him from them.
"There's no fear of coming to jail," he said during a recent tour of the building. "Flat-screen televisions? They just committed a crime against you and you don't have all that stuff in your home."
Dagnello said he is concerned about the jail management strategy called "direct supervision," which puts an officer in direct contact with the inmate population at all times.
An officer perches at a desk in the center of the pod and mingles all day with inmates. His interactions, though, are closely watched by officers in a central surveillance room who will dispatch help at a moment's notice.
Still, Dagnello is not so sure help will always arrive in time.
Suffolk Sheriff Vincent DeMarco said the $185 million facility, which has still more construction phases to go, is clean, secure and efficient, and that its less-punitive configuration will curb tensions in the jail, leading to fewer assaults.
State jail oversight officials said they are pleased with the new facility and look forward to subsequent phases of the project, which will ultimately hold nearly 2,000 inmates.
It should also save Suffolk money by eliminating the need to pay to ship and house prisoners at the Nassau jail or other places with surplus cells. Lastly, it is clean, and should cut down on litigation filed by inmates who say they live in unsanitary conditions.
Suffolk is fighting a lawsuit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union that claims inmates in the Riverhead jail and the old Yaphank facility live in filthy and unsafe conditions that have produced respiratory conditions and skin infections.
System of carrot and stick
DeMarco said the inmate management philosophy was built into its design. He saw it in operation in 2006 during a tour of the Broome County jail in Binghamton.
"I didn't like the concept in the beginning," said Broome County Sheriff David E. Harder, who runs a 536-bed jail. "I came from the old style. But I quickly adjusted after I saw how well it operates."
Harder said inmate-on-inmate sexual assaults dropped to zero as soon as the jail was opened 18 years ago -- and they haven't had one since.
Virginia Hutchinson, jails division chief of the National Institute of Corrections, said she's not surprised.
"Jurisdictions that have gone from the old style to direct supervision will tell you there's a night and day difference," she said. "The stress level goes down. It's healthier for staff and inmates."
Hutchinson added that jails that have less violence can more readily offer programming aimed at reintegration, so former prisoners are less inclined to commit new crimes and end up in jail again.
But anyone who abuses the privileges in the new Yaphank wing can be shipped to the less desirable Riverhead facility, DeMarco said, creating a system of carrot and stick.
"I think it's better for the officer," DeMarco said. "I think it makes the job more fulfilling and gets them back to being correctional officers instead of just being guards."
State officials agree.
"Direct supervision jails are the industry standard: they are more cost-effective to build, furnish, operate and staff," said Janine Kava, a spokeswoman for the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.
Since 1993, she said, only direct supervision jails have been eligible for state approval for construction. Kava said they are a vast improvement over the old buildings in Riverhead and the old Yaphank facility to which the new jail is attached.
"For example, the way the linear jail spaces in Suffolk are configured and occupied, two officers are assigned to supervise a 60-cell linear unit," she said. "With direct supervision, an officer can supervise up to 60 inmates. In addition, the officers' interaction with inmates results in the ability to identify problems or disturbances before they escalate, resulting in a more stable, secure environment."
Suffolk's correction officers were specially trained to operate in the direct supervision environment, Dagnello said.
But he said he doesn't like the change because it poses too much risk. "It's different from the way we've been doing things for the past 300 years," he said. "I prefer the old model. I've been to too many funerals."