While researching the complaints pouring in, local inmate advocates uncovered a 1990 provision in the county charter mandating a citizen oversight panel of medical and civil rights experts that would take inmate complaints and make recommendations—but the past three county executives never appointed or staffed such a board. After lobbying county lawmakers went nowhere, the activists rallied on Nov. 28, 2011, outside the Theodore Roosevelt Executive and Legislative Building in Mineola, demanding action.
“These people in jail have civil rights, and [they] should be protected,” Douglas Mayers, president of the Freeport/Roosevelt NAACP chapter, told the legislature after protesting outside. “They’re human beings like us.”
His comments included fewer graphic allegations than speakers before him in a parade of former inmates, family members of inmates and affiliated nonprofit groups who’ve joined forces in the fight. Proponents say the board would be similar to one in New York City.
“I’m hoping that it doesn’t have to end up in a lawsuit,” Samantha Fredrickson, director of the Nassau chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, tells the Press. “I’m hoping that the county will do the right thing and abide by the county charter.”
Yet county officials aren’t tripping over themselves in support. Sheriff Sposato believes that the Board of Visitors, as it is called, would be redundant.
“The department already works with and responds to a number of oversights at this point,” he said in a statement issued through the jail’s attorney and spokeswoman, Elizabeth Loconsolo, declining to comment on specific allegations of abuse. “It may be that the Board of Visitors was never constituted as it would just create additional, duplicative work and could cause some confusion and contradictory reports and/or recommendations.”
Aside from the state corrections commission monitoring, incidents at the jail are investigated by the county Commission on Human Rights, police, prosecutors, the department’s own internal affairs unit and an inmate grievance unit—a unit that advocates argue is understaffed. In addition, there has been a Jail Advisory Committee made up of East Meadow community leaders since the late 1980s following rallies opposing its expansion.
“Unless that jail is safe, then the community will not be,” says Legis. Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow), who has sat on the committee since its inception when she was a civic activist. “We want to see that the inmates are taken care of,” she says of the current committee while researching the visitors’ board idea.
Fredrickson says that the current jail committee isn’t for inmates; it’s for neighbors concerned about inmate escapes, including East Meadow High School and district officials from across the street on Carman’s Avenue. The mandated board would be made up of experts from beyond the immediate community. And she notes that it isn’t up to Sposato, it’s Mangano who is tasked with the appointments.
District Attorney Kathleen Rice, who had called for expediting reviews on jail deaths, says through a spokesman that she is taking a wait-and-see approach on the advisory board issue until Mangano makes a decision. The county executive’s office did not answer questions on the administration’s position on the visitors’ board, but a Mangano spokeswoman forwarded Sposato’s aforementioned statement opposing the idea.
The visitors’ board was established under former Republican County Executive Tom Gulotta, who appears to have set the example of not appointing members for his Democratic successor, Tom Suozzi, to follow. Gulotta never started the initial nomination process 21 years ago nor amid revived efforts following the ’99 beating death, according to Newsday reports at the time.
Legis. Judy Jacobs (D-Woodbury) has said that, unlike many of the issues brought before the legislature, this should not break along party lines.
“This really is not a partisan issue,” Jacobs told the visitors’ board proponents at the legislative chamber in November. “This is not a time for finger pointing.”