Autistic son motivates Onondaga County's chief jailer to be compassionate

Esteban Gonzales

Esteban Gonzales became a jail deputy when the Onondaga County Justice Center was under construction. Now, 20 years later, Gonzales is the chief deputy in charge of the day-to-day operation at the jail.

"There is no more efficient model of a jail that I've seen in the country... and I've visited 190 jails." Gonzales told CNY Central's Jim Kenyon. He says his assessment is based on his position as a nationally recognized expert on incarceration. As president of the American Jail Association, Onondaga County's chief jailer has testified before Congress and has been quoted in numerous publications including the Wall Street Journal about the state of the nation's jails and how to improve them.

"I work with the board of directors of the American Jail Association. So I know all the cutting edge technology that's out there." he says.

Gonzales says he's bringing that "cutting edge" to the Justice Center at a time when county legislators are considering a $30 million expansion. He will oversee the construction of a new more efficient mental health wing.

Gonzales also intends to improve the infirmary, which has come under criticism over the years following the deaths of several inmates. He intends to improve medical care so that fewer inmates are sent to local hospitals.

Dr. Anne Calkins is the newly hired medical director, with 15 years of experience in emergency care.

"I'm hoping to keep folks not having to go to the emergency departments which are already overcrowded, but also just facilitating care here within the justice center will make things easier for the deputies and the continuity of care for the inmates would be more comprehensive. " she said

The average length of stay for an inmate at the Justice Center is 22 days. The sheriff's department has partnered with the Syracuse City School District to offer a program called "Incarcerated Education". It offers 22 courses, including GED education, life management, plumbing, and even a course on becoming a licensed nail technician.

Gonzales wants to expand the educational program to provide college-level courses.

Gonzales says he is motivated by his autistic 20 year old son, Dylan, who can't speak and needs constant care. "He is an adult man with the emotional capacity of a young child. He will probably be with my wife and I for the rest of our lives."

He adds, "What I bring to this jail is a compassion beyond all compassion for the people that don't have a voice, for the people that are the most needy in society... when they come here, it's our job to treat them humane, to treat them safely and to give them everything available to the rest of the public."

Gonzales says he's proud of the Justice Center and hopes more people become aware of what happens inside the walls of the county jail.