WHITE PLAINS, NY — Westchester County Executive Robert P. Astorino today announced an agreement with the Department of Justice that addresses issues raised regarding conditions of confinement at the county’s jail and penitentiary complex that arose during the administration of former County Executive Andrew Spano. The agreement calls for a three-year review of the policies and practices that have been instituted by the Astorino administration over the past six years and avoids the need for a consent decree or other formal legal proceedings.
“Our approach from the beginning has been to work collaboratively with the Justice Department to institute policies that protect the safety of our correction officers, our inmates and the public,” said Astorino. “This agreement recognizes the good work done by our Department of Correction and lifts the threat of costly litigation.”
Under the terms of the agreement, a monitor who has been chosen jointly by the county and the DOJ will perform periodic reviews over the next three years of the Correction Department’s policies and procedures, which will include site visits and meetings with staff, care providers and inmates.
The agreement grew out of a DOJ report issued at the end of the Spano administration in November 2009, regarding conditions of confinement existing at the jail complex in 2006 and 2007. The report focused on emergency response team operations, mental health care, the handling of inmates under the age of 18, disciplinary measures involving removing inmates from the general population and suggested improvements. Since the report, the Correction Department has been making ongoing voluntary improvements to its operations.
The jail complex in Valhalla, which can house up to 1,800 inmates, is currently the only large jail in New York with dual accreditation by the American Correctional Association and the National Commission on Correction Health Care. Over the past several years, the jail’s inmate population has been significantly reduced to approximately 1,200 inmates by the county’s efforts to find safe and cost-effective alternatives to incarceration, such as supervised pre-trial release, credit card bail and other means of supervision.
“I am proud of the significant progress we have made, not only to address the DOJ’s concerns, but more so to maintain Westchester’s status as home to one of the top correctional agencies in the country,” said Correction Commissioner Kevin M. Cheverko. “Great credit goes to our workforce of nearly 900 individuals, from our correction officers, to our supervisors, teachers and nurses who have adopted, implemented and embraced these changes.”
Cheverko noted the following proactive measures that the jail has developed during the Astorino administration:
· In partnership with its inmate health care provider and the county’s Department of Community Mental Health, the jail maintains a robust mental health program, which benefits from a new state-of-the art housing unit for mentally ill offenders.
· In 2014, the jail’s Special Housing Unit (a disciplinary block) was reviewed by the New York State Commission of Correction, the oversight agency for jails statewide, and earned a “merited commendation” from the commission, which noted mental health operations in particular.
· The jail has instituted a headquarters-based Use of Force Review Board to review all use-of-force incidents by staff.
· Through capital projects, the jail has improved staff and inmate safety by implementing more than 1,000 cameras facility-wide.
· In response to retirements, the department has maintained appropriate staffing levels by hiring more than 250 new correction officers from various walks of life around Westchester and the Hudson Valley.