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New York: Provision Requiring Independent Jail Oversight Board Ignored for 23 Years

For more than two decades, the Nassau County Jail in East Meadow, New York has lacked accountability in the form of an oversight board. But that lapse may be coming to an end after prisoner advocates filed a lawsuit seeking court intervention.

Since 1990, the Nassau County Jail has failed to answer to an independent civilian oversight board as required by a provision in the county’s charter. In fact, the board has never been fully formed or functional.

Considering the jail’s disproportionately high rate of suicides over the years, as well as allegations of prisoner abuse and poor conditions, some local lawmakers said it was time for County Executive Edward Mangano to appoint the seven-member Correctional Center Board of Visitors, which would hear and investigate complaints concerning the jail and recommend reforms.

According to Nassau County’s charter, the Board of Visitors is to consist of county residents who have some “working knowledge of the correctional system.” It is required to have an office at the jail and access to the jail’s records and books. Board members are to be appointed by the county executive and serve without pay.

“It is a legitimate concern and it’s in the charter,” said county legislator Judy Jacobs. “It deserves action.”

The Nassau County Jail, which holds up to 1,500 prisoners, has experienced 15 suicides since 1990 with five occurring between January 2010 and March 2012. Overall, the jail’s number of suicides represents more than a third of all suicides in county facilities statewide.

Further, the Nassau chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) has received hundreds of complaints from jail prisoners regarding issues related to medical care, safety, recreation and education programs. In 2011, the state cited the jail for violating minimum standards such as failing to maintain sanitary conditions and an over-reliance on solitary confinement.

Activists and some county lawmakers contend the Board of Visitors would provide ongoing oversight of problems at the jail and would supplement the work of the New York State Commission of Correction, which employs a few dozen staffers to monitor over 100 jails and prisons, as well as hundreds of police lockups.

“It’s the law, and the county is required to obey its own law,” said Samantha Fredrickson, director of the NYCLU’s Nassau chapter.

But Mangano – the third in a line of county executives to completely ignore the independent jail oversight provision in the county’s charter – refused to commit, arguing that the Commission of Correction already provided sufficient accountability on the state level.

His response failed to satisfy advocates pushing for county officials to form the required Correctional Center Board of Visitors – including the NYCLU, which filed an Article 78 proceeding in Nassau County Supreme Court on March 21, 2012, seeking an order of mandamus to “compel County Executive Mangano to appoint seven members to a Board of Visitors pursuant to Nassau County Charter § 2004.”

The case remains pending. See: Marone v. Nassau County, Supreme Court, County of Nassau (NY), Index No. 003630-2012.


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Related legal case

Marone v. Nassau County