Major expansion looming at the Onondaga County Justice Center

Jail deputy on constant watch over inmate

On the fifth floor of the jail at the Onondaga County Justice Center, deputies are often required to sit or stand outside a jail cell and keep a watchful eye on just one or two inmates 24 hours a day. This is where the jail houses inmates with mental health problems.

Chief Administrative Deputy John Balloni says this is why the county is moving forward with plans to build a new mental health unit. "As the state has cut funding for beds for people with mental problems, they end up on the streets. They end up getting arrested and they end up in our institution." he explained.

Onondaga County is spending $400-thousand dollars for architects and engineers to come up with a request for proposals so that private companies can bid on the project. The Sheriff's Department figures they can build onto the second floor of the facility to create a 100 bed unit for inmates with mental and behavior problems.

Chief Custody Deputy Esteban Gonzales says it would be a much quieter and less intimidating facility in which one deputy could simultaneously watch over 5 inmates. Gonzales says this current setup is unacceptable and predicts the state will eventually order the county to correct the problem. "This big open environment that is cacophonous is not conducive to improving their behavior."

According to the Sheriff's Department, a side benefit to building a mental health unit is that it would relieve overcrowding in other parts of the Justice Center. This week, according to Gonzalez. there are about 70 inmates being housed at the Jamesville Penitentiary simply because there's no room for them at the Justice Center.

Onondaga County Legislature Chairman Ryan McMahon is bracing for a hefty price tag for the new jail expansion. He says some of those costs could be reimbursed by neighboring counties who would pay to send their excess prisoners here. "We want to make sure we build it in a way where we could actually receive inmates from other counties to get re-imbursement from other counties." McMahon said.

McMahon says he won't know the cost of new jail mental health unit until all the research is complete. For now he figures it could run $15 million to $30 million.