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Nassau legislator wants to strengthen jail oversight board

Nassau Legislator Siela Bynoe talks in Mineola on

Nassau Legislator Siela Bynoe talks in Mineola on Monday, May 8, 2017, about her efforts to provide the county jail's civilian oversight board a staff and require that members have more relevant experience. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

A Nassau County legislator wants to strengthen the county jail’s civilian oversight board by giving it a dedicated staff to investigate inmate complaints and require that its members have more relevant experience.

Legis. Siela Bynoe (D-Westbury) on Monday announced the filing of a bill to address concerns she said arose after recently questioning members of the Board of Visitors seeking legislative reappointment.

The board is empowered in the county charter with reviewing inmate complaints and advising the sheriff on ways to improve jail conditions and inmate care and safety.

But Board vice chairwoman Helen Meittinis testified in February: “We don’t have any kind of staff or funding or anything like that. We don’t have any rights, you know, to know who is who and what is in the jail.”

Operations at the East Meadow jail have come under scrutiny over the last two years amid several inmate deaths, a state attorney general lawsuit against the jail’s private inmate medical provider, and the arrest of a jail nurse on charges of smuggling drugs and razors to inmates.

Bynoe said Monday that in light of the jail’s issues, the volunteer Board of Visitors should have a full-time attorney and investigators to help it more thoroughly review inmate complaints, hold more public meetings, issue regular public reports and require members to have experience in medicine, criminal justice, or social services.

“They virtually have no presence at the jail,” Bynoe said. “The inmates aren’t aware of them, nor are their families.”

The board has been established in the county charter for decades, but members weren’t actually appointed until 2013, following a lawsuit by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Susan Gottehrer, director of the NYCLU’s Nassau chapter, on Monday called current conditions in the county’s jail “some Midnight Express nightmare,” a reference to the 1970s film set in a Turkish prison. She said Bynoe’s bill was “a step in the right direction” that would “give the board the teeth and resources it needs.”

The county legislature’s Republican majority controls what bills are considered for votes.

Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) said the Monday that the bill is under review, and “probably by the next meeting we can have a better handle on it.”

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