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Save money, make psych center a jail

Dutchess County is presently housing out about 182 inmates per day to correctional facilities in other counties because the Dutchess County Jail lacks capacity to serve our public safety needs. In July the Dutchess County sheriff will request the Legislature approve $1.6 million, in addition to the $2.6 million included in the 2011 county budget, to cover housing-out costs. Also in July, the Legislature will consider a second request from the sheriff for an additional $1 million for overtime expenses associated with assisting inmates “with medical and mental issues.” The state is closing Hudson River Psychiatric Center (HRPC) perhaps as early as Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011. The county should immediately seize upon this possibility for transferring ownership of the psychiatric center to the county to serve as a secondary county jail.Hudson River Psychiatric Center’s Ross Building is in good physical condition and is a facility capable of housing at least 125 inmates in a lock-down setup with space for an additional 25 if the fourth floor were converted from administration offices to cells. A feasibility study and negotiations with the state should be opened so that sufficient numbers and information are known in short time lest this opportunity for remedying the costly county jail-housing problem is lost to economic development or left abandoned.The county’s jail population (those jailed in Poughkeepsie plus those housed out) has been hovering around 350 for the past two years. The sheriff’s projections are that we will be at 441 by 2015 and 495 by 2020. Our county jail is permitted only to house 257. For more than a decade the county has adopted a housing-out strategy instead of expanding our in-county facilities. The high cost of housing out is now calling into question that policy. Already the 2011 Dutchess County Capital Improvements Plan includes performing a feasibility study on jail expansion.Conversion of HRPC to a second county jail will not completely solve our jail capacity problem, but it will stop the bleeding while county officials buckle down to discuss long-term jail needs. Theoretically, any transfer costs for the property from the state to the county or increased staffing costs could be paid by the savings in housing-out costs.Further, there is approximately $2.5 million of state reinvestment money available for community supports following the closure of the state hospital. How this money gets spent is currently being decided, and I suggest that some of it be used to support at least one mental health jail unit that will allow inmates to be treated on site and reduce the overtime costs to transport inmates for mental health services. An additional portion of this reinvestment money could be allotted to community reintegration programs for mental health offenders upon completion of their sentences or upon adjudication to prevent recidivism. As funds allow, perhaps the county could allot additional funds for mental health counselors at our jail to treat inmate mental health issues so as to prevent future suicides like the unfortunate ones of the last year.Retrofitting and converting the Hudson River Psychiatric Center into a secondary county jail upon its closure later this year will meet a real county need. It also suggests itself a better allocation of resources in ultimately saving taxpayers millions of dollars. Dialogue needs to commence immediately on all levels of government, branches and departments to explore this idea. We cannot afford not to.Michael N. Kelsey represents Amenia, Washington, Stanford, Pleasant Valley and Millbrook in the Dutchess County Legislature. Write him at KelseyESQ@yahoo.com.

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