Lawmakers are igniting a last-minute push to adopt three measures they say will improve accountability and treatment of people held in state and local correctional sites across New York, including expanding the elected officials who can visit the facilities.
Measures to increase the number of people on the State Commission of Correction, which oversees state and local correctional facilities, and make all jails and prisions subject to the state Human Rights Law sit in Senate and Assembly committees.
Legislators rallied Tuesday for their passage before the end of session with dozens of advocates and formerly incarcerated New Yorkers who were held in local jails.
Calls were loudest for a bill to mandate county legislators and their staff to have access to local jails at any time in efforts to improve transparency about facility conditions.
"There's certain standards of operation and all of the standards should be one of transparency and accountability for staffing and whether or not the detainees and people incarcerated are being treated in an appropriate manner," sponsor Sen. Robert Jackson said.
Jackson and his staff attempted to visit Rikers Island unannounced last year, and were forced to leave after failing to get permission to visit the New York City facility.
The law was changed in 2019 to allow state elected officials to have similar access to New York prisons.
Advocates like Assembly sponsor David Weprin say greater transparency will lead to improved safety for people in prison and correction officers alike.
Many people held in local jails have not been convicted of a crime.
"If these local officials, local, correctional and local jail administrators have nothing to hide, there's no reason why they should object to access by government officials," Weprin said.
But some Republican lawmakers at the county level are joining forces against the measure.
They argue county lawmakers should not have unfettered access to local correction facilities, saying they have full faith in the area sheriff to oversee a jail.
"I want things to be fair in the jail," said Albany County Legislator Mark Grimm, a Republican from Guilderland. "But that's why we have elections for sheriffs every four years."
More than two dozen Democrats on the Albany County Legislature have signed onto a proclamation in support of the proposed legislation.
Grimm is one of 10 Republican lawmakers in the county who unanimously oppose the proposal.
He says counties should be able to decide if their elected officials should have unrestricted access to local jails if the law changes.
"I believe this should be up to the individual counties," he said. "And once again, it's the heavy hand of state government imposing its will on the county."
Senators are expected to discuss and vote on the measure in the coming days.
It's unclear if lawmakers will prioritize the three bills and adopt them within the next three weeks.