In an effort to keep open Camp McGregor in Wilton, which Gov. Spitzer wants to close for lack of prisoners, local Assemblyman Roy McDonald has proposed using it to house overflow inmates when local jails are overcrowded. Interesting idea, and definitely worth the study McDonald has called for, but some problems come to mind.
A big one is that most of the jails in the region are not over capacity, they are under. That’s true of Saratoga County’s, with a capacity of 205 and a population of 150 or so; Albany County’s, with a capacity of 1,035 and a population of 688 (more than 100 of them federal prisoners); and Schenectady County’s, with a capacity of 360 and a population of 300.
In fact, the only area county with a serious crowding problem is Rensselaer, which has been ordered by the state Commission of Corrections to add 190 beds. Currently it farms out extra inmates to other counties, including Albany. Last year it paid Albany $124,000 to take its prisoners (at $100 per prisoner per day), down from $675,000 in 2006 and more than $2 million a few years ago. Overall, it paid other counties $1.1 million in 2007 to house excess prisoners. Conceivably Rensselaer County could keep doing this indefinitely, avoiding the astronomical cost of the state Commission of Corrections mandate: $50 million.
McDonald envisions these inmates going to McGregor, which would become a kind of regional jail, albeit one run by the state Department of Corrections. We are in favor of regionalism, and there’s no reason it cannot be done in the criminal justice area. In fact, there is a regional juvenile detention center in Albany, near the airport. But it was built to fill a need; there were no secure facilities for juvenile offenders in the Capital Region. Jails are different: every county has one, and most now have extra space. They also have programs and security features that Camp McGregor, a minimum-security facility, does not.
But this is just our inexpert opinion. Let the state do the study McDonald calls for, especially since there’s plenty of time: The earliest McGregor — which has only 150 of its 300 beds filled — can be closed is next year. Have the Corrections Department, Commission of Corrections, Budget Division, and Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness explore the concept further and see whether it makes sense from the standpoint of overall tax savings and efficiency. It may not ultimately be the way to go, but it is far from off the wall.