A corrections expert who has been at the helm of state prison systems in Connecticut and Nevada, along with a short stint as first deputy in New York City, is County Executive Laura Curran's pick to become the next sheriff of Nassau.
James E. Dzurenda — the "D" is silent — boasts a 33-year career that began when as a teenager he took an $8-per-hour, part-time job inside the Bridgeport Correctional Center in Connecticut during a period of short staffing in the mid-1980s.
Dzurenda, 53, a Connecticut native, retired from that state's system after 27 years of service in 2014. He rose the ranks to become commissioner responsible for a staff of 6,200 and about 16,000 inmates.
Throughout his career, he has worked to engage other agencies, community advocacy groups and faith-based organizations in the rehabilitation of jail inmates. The effort, he said, must begin on the first day of an inmate serving a jail sentence.
"Everybody in the community and all of the community services — everybody in the community — should be taking responsibility to help inmates change their lives because, if we don't change their lives, you can't expect victimization in the communities to go down," Dzurenda said in a recent interview with Newsday.
He spent about 15 months as first deputy commissioner of correction in New York City, assisting in the supervision of the jails in five boroughs, Rikers Island and the security of district courthouses. And for three years beginning in 2016, Dzurenda was director of the Nevada state prisons with more that 2,600 staff and 14,000 inmates. He also has his own consulting firm, JD Consulting LLC.
Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon, who recommended him for the sheriff's job in Nassau, said Dzurenda "is one of the foremost experts in corrections in the nation, and someone with great integrity. We share a common interest in establishing reformative inmate rehabilitation programs, and I look forward to working with him to develop cross-county partnerships to improve public safety throughout Long Island."
Nassau legislators must approve Dzurenda's appointment. Two legislative committees, Rules and Public Safety, are expected to discuss his qualifications on Monday. His base salary would be $190,000. The administration received 88 resumes and interviewed 13 candidates, county spokesman Michael Fricchone said.
Dzurenda would follow Vera Fludd, Nassau's first woman sheriff, who Curran brought on at the start of her administration in January 2018. Fludd, 58, of Freeport, retired after working at the county jail for more than 35 years.
Dzurenda also would step into the role at a changing time for the correctional facilities. New York's bail reform law has significantly reduced the jail population in Nassau and counties statewide.
The new law, which went into effect on Jan. 1 but is likely to be tweaked after political backlash, eliminates cash bail for nearly all people charged with misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. Supporters say it makes the system more fair for low-income suspects because they are no longer detained before their court date because of an inability to pay bail. Detractors — including law enforcement, Rebublicans and some moderate Democrats — argue the law doesn't allow for judges to determine whether the alleged is a danger to public safety.
Nassau's jail currently has about 850 inmates and about 800 staff members. Dzurenda is likely to be tasked with reorganizing resources at the sprawling East Meadow complex, which historically used to house more than quadruple the number of inmates.
Curran said she believes Dzurenda will work well with the staff inside the jail and with partners out in the community.
"He really understands how important it is to engage with our communities," Curran said. "One thing we do have in Nassau County and law enforcement is a really good culture of community engagement and to have this happen with the corrections department is incredibly important."
Nassau County Sheriff's Correction Officers Benevolent Association President Brian Sullivan said he was "very impressed with Dzurenda's resume and credentials."
"He comes very highly recommended from those that knew him in his previous positions. He grew up in corrections and we speak the same language. I'm looking forward to turning this department around and working with a decision maker who can get things done with the safety and security of our officers being number one priority," said Sullivan, who held a press conference last summer denouncing Fludd's management.
In Nevada, Dzurenda was tasked with reforming an outdated prison system that was among the only ones in the nation to allow correction officers to use shotguns to quell inmate uprisings.
Former Gov. Brian Sandoval hired him at a time of turmoil for the prison system there. Dzurenda replaced the former director who failed to produce a timely report on a shooting that occurred at High Desert State Prison and wasn’t publicly revealed to be a homicide for several months, according to local news reports.
Dzurenda called the Nevada system "old school" and says he is excited to be back on the East Coast.
Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park): "Having strong leadership at the Nassau County Correctional Facility is imperative as we deal with bail reform and the heroin and opioid abuse epidemic in Nassau County. We look forward to reviewing Mr. Dzurenda's resume and qualifications and voting on his nomination in committees on Monday."
James E. Dzurenda
53 years old
Married, father of three teenagers
33 years experience working inside correctional facilities; including commissioner of Connecticut state prisons, first deputy commissioner of New York City correction department and director of the Nevada state prisons
Expected Nassau base salary is $190,000