New York's highest court Tues day ordered the state prison sys tem to stop keeping convicted state prisoners in county jails for long periods, a decision that could relieve dangerous overcrowding in the Niagara County Jail and mean huge savings for Erie County.
While attorneys Tuesday were studying the ramifications of the ruling, Erie County Sheriff Thom as F. Higgins indicated that it could save the county up to $800,000 a year. The ruling also is expected to have a significant effect in Niagara County, where officials have called overcrowding a "potential time bomb." Niagara County today houses 241 inmates, including 40 from the state, in a jail that was built for 176, Sheriff Francis L. Giles said. County officials have had to open a dormitory in a chapel to house the overflow. "It's going to alleviate a lot of pressure on everybody, specifically the guards and the inmates," Giles said. "I'm ecstatic," Raul Russi, su perintendent of the Erie County Holding Center, said. "It helps Erie County control its own desti ny in the way it handles inmates." The new ruling, which allows the state to house its prison-ready inmates in county jails for only 10 days, will open space in Erie County jails for other inmates from downstate counties that pay higher prison fees than the state. For example, if the ruling frees 50 to 60 beds on the average day, Erie County can accept that many downstate county prisoners, who generate $85 per day. The state pays only $40 per day. With 50 prisoners each generat ing an extra $45 per day, the dif ference snowballs to more than $800,000 per year, according to Higgins' staff. State prison officials, mean while, studied the ruling to deter mine how many of the 1,100 "state-ready" inmates -- those awaiting transfer to state prisons -- will have to be accommodated in state facilities by next week. "The Court of Appeals ruling today has massive implications for the Department of Correctional Services," said state Corrections Commissioner Thomas Coughlin. "I have directed staff to assess the impact and the implications of the court's decision. I will then determine how to proceed and an nounce my decision at that time." James Flateau, a spokesman for the state Department of Correc tional Services, said it was uncer tain Tuesday how many of the 1,100 state-ready inmates were af fected by the court ruling. Flateau said the state prison system is operating at 111.2 per cent of capacity with 42,879 in mates, but Peter Kehoe, a Troy attorney representing the sheriffs who sued the state, said county jails are at 128 percent of capacity. Flateau said the state expects to add 2,600 beds to its system by the end of the year and 3,800 beds within a year. "Yeah, that takes care of the 2,600," Gov. Cuomo's press secre tary Gary Fryer said of the ruling. "But what do we do with the 2,600 (new inmates) we were plan ning to put there?" Fryer said Cuomo has already said he'll ask the State Legislature for the money to build at least one prison to accommodate convicts produced by a new anti-drug pro gram in New York City. The department's practice of housing state prisoners indefinite ly in county jails was challenged by 50 of the state's 58 county sher iffs, who said their own jails also are frequently overcrowded -- largely because the state prison system refused to take transfer- ready inmates off their hands.