Schenectady County Jail inmates are shoving blankets, shirts and even underwear down the toilets so frequently that the city is buying a special grinder pump to stop the debris from clogging the sewers.
Clogs from jail debris pushed sewage onto the street outside Proctors during its grand reopening in 2006, forcing workers to clean it up in a hurry before patrons poured out of the theater at the end of “Phantom of the Opera.”
But that was hardly the first time — jail-related backups have been a problem for decades, city and county officials said. They’ve agreed to split the cost of the $45,000 grinder in hopes of resolving the problem at last.
“It’s been going on as long as I’ve been here,” said county Sheriff Harry Buffardi. “We have had them flush blankets down the toilets. We haven’t had blankets in a while, but they flush the uniforms, their underwear, socks, shirts, paper goods, plastic bags.”
Sometimes they flush garbage down the toilet because they don’t have wastebaskets in their cells, Buffardi said, adding that he won’t add trash receptacles because it could be a safety hazard.
“It would just be something else to be a problem — it could be thrown around, taken apart,” he said. “We try to avoid anything that’s metal or hard plastic.”
But inmates aren’t flushing their clothes down the toilet because they need a wastebasket. Some of them are submerging thick wads of cloth just because they can. The vacuum toilets can suck up even a blanket.
“Sometimes they do it just out of mischief,” Buffardi said. “They just don’t care.”
He charges inmates with criminal mischief, a misdemeanor, if they flush anything inappropriate. They must also pay for the items they destroy, and inmates face felony charges if repairs cost more than $1,000 — which has happened, Buffardi said.
But the charges haven’t deterred generation after generation from seeing if they, too, can get a blanket down the toilet.
“The behavior of my clientele is not always the best,” Buffardi said.
Soon, it won’t matter. Commissioner of General Services Carl Olsen is hoping the grinder pump will chew up anything that comes down the pipes from the jail.
“Our waste collection system is not designed for trash,” he said. “This will chop it up.”
County officials had looked into installing a grinder at the jail, but ran into space difficulties. Olsen was going to replace the downtown sewage pump anyway, at a cost of $25,000 to $30,000, and agreed to upgrade to a grinder pump if the county shouldered half the cost.
“It’s a more effective solution for the county. So everyone benefits,” Olsen said. “The taxpayers definitely benefit from upgrading that pump, and the taxpayer is funding both the city and county government.”
Despite frequent jail-related clogs, he said downtown residents haven’t noticed a problem.
“It hasn’t interrupted their service,” he said.
The grinder pump hasn’t been purchased yet. Olsen has already installed a $9,000 bypass to avoid sewage backups into the heart of downtown.