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Suffolk County's new jail to open this week

Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco stands in one

Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco stands in one of the four pods at the new Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank. (March 22, 2013) Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Suffolk's new county jail -- a $185 million facility mandated by the state and dubbed by County Executive Steve Bellone as a "Taj Mahal" -- opens this week when the first of 440 prisoners arrive.

The complex in Yaphank, Suffolk's largest construction project in three decades, was ordered by the state Commission on Correction in 2004 to ease severe overcrowding at the county jail in Riverhead. The county borrowed the money to build the jail, which is opening a year behind schedule.

Bellone is accepting the new facility grudgingly, because of the state mandate. In addition to labeling it a "Taj Mahal," he said that when he first saw photos of the facility he mistook it for a new day care center.

"The only people who should be happy are the prisoners," Bellone said. "It's terrible news for the taxpayers."

The first 105 inmates will move into the new jail on Saturday, and plans call for 105 prisoners to be added weekly until the jail is at capacity in early May.

The sheriff's office, which operates the jail system, notes that the modern design permits a single correction officer to supervise 60 inmates living in residential "pods," compared with the 40 an officer can monitor now in Riverhead.

Sheriff Vincent DeMarco called the Riverhead jail, which will continue to operate, "a warehouse for prisoners."

"The whole idea here . . . with direct supervision is not to have prisoners move at all," he said. "The safest place for them to be is in their own pod."

The state issued variances that allowed the county to double-bunk and use common areas in existing facilities while the new jail was built. The facility opening this week will increase the system's capacity of 1,831 beds by a net of 156.

A planned second phase, also state-mandated, will add another 440 beds to the complex and is expected to cost about $102 million.

The project long has been controversial.

The county comptroller opened an audit of the project in December 2010 after the Judicial Facilities Agency, which is financing the project for the county, said it didn't have all the information it needed. The report is pending.

The new facility also generated questions about nearly $1 million in campaign contributions by jail contractors to former County Executive Steve Levy.

Levy, who was in office when the project started, and his aides said there was no connection between campaign donations and the contracts. He called the order to build new local jail space "the epitome of state mandates run amok."

Some lawmakers say the county can't afford the planned second phase of the project.

"We already have budget problems and this would make it a bigger one," said Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley). "It's another unfunded mandate and we cannot afford it any more."

State correction officials said the variances in the past five years saved the county $107.3 million that it would have spent housing prisoners outside Suffolk.

"It's a very expensive facility," said Fred Pollert, deputy county executive for finance. But he emphasized that the staffing and operational costs have been incorporated into this year's county budget. Once the jail opens, "we will be operating with among the most efficient staffing levels" in New York, Pollert said.

At the Riverhead jail, for example, it can take several guards a half-hour each way to move prisoners from their cell tiers to places such as the outdoor yard, which has four supervising officers.

Each of the six residential pods in the new jail, guarded by one officer, has a 60-by-60-foot indoor recreation area with a basketball hoop and an oversized garage door on the exterior wall that lets in fresh air and sunlight.

Two levels of cells look down on a common area with seating, stainless steel tables with checker boards painted on top and two big-screen televisions, both financed by commissary profits. Officials say prisoners can spend time out of their cells as long as they behave properly.

"The idea is that if you're good and follow the rules there are more privileges," said Undersheriff Joseph Caracappa. "Those who come here from the old jail are going to say 'I don't want to screw this up.' "

The residential pods will have rooms where inmates can access a computerized law library, and that computer's connections in the future may allow video court appearances or communication with defense attorneys. The chapel is wired for cameras so prisoners can view religious services over television.

But Amol Sinha, a lawyer for the New York Civil Liberties Union, which sued Suffolk on behalf of inmates, said the new jail "is not a solution to the problems. Until the county reduces its excessive rate of incarceration and improves jail conditions, taxpayers are going to continue to foot the bill for expensive lawsuits . . . and . . . building new, multimillion dollar facilities."

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