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Letter: Seeking Accountability at Onondaga County Justice Center (Syracuse Post-Standard)

To the Editor:

On Aug. 19, 60 people gathered for a meeting initiated by the NAACP to call for accountability at the Onondaga County Justice Center. However, the subsequent Post-Standard article left a misleading impression that these concerns are limited to the African-American community.

In fact, this meeting was facilitated by representatives of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the New York Civil Liberties Union, Jail Ministry, the National Action Network and the NAACP. Many other groups serving a broad array of constituencies were represented, including those listed below. We all felt that the deaths of Chuneice Patterson and Raul Pinet Jr. at the jail should be of grave concern, not only for the African-American or Latino community but for the Syracuse community.

Some at the meeting did call for independent oversight, appointment of a special prosecutor, or to “shut down the jail.” However, the clearest and strongest demand was for accountability — for public officials to finally pay attention to the jail’s systemic problems and initiate real solutions.

Walt Dixie’s comments were quoted out of context, but his core point rings true. The sheriff and other local officials have turned a blind eye to misconduct, neglect and negligence at the jail. There seems to have been little or no consequences for the custody or medical staff involved in recent inmate injuries and deaths. The suffering of Maparo Ramadhan and the senseless deaths of Patterson and Pinet have caught the public’s attention, but there have been reports of other examples of misconduct and neglect.

Civil rights advocates related reports of deputies using racial and homophobic slurs, nurses refusing to dispense prescribed medications and telling deputies to let a disabled inmate “suffer.” Advocates reported that some prisoners are routinely denied the use of toilet paper or any utensils to eat their food. Inmates with disabilities have been reportedly denied the use of walkers and wheelchairs. Others related reports of staff who ignored inmates repeated complaints of pain or illness, and of deputies who used excessive force or misused their power to impose harsh restrictions and punishments.

The vast majority of people held in the jail have not been convicted of anything. Many cannot afford bail and so wait for months for their cases to be resolved. Onondaga County has a legal obligation to ensure that they are treated humanely and without bias. It is not enough to say that we have a modern facility. We must ensure that all jail staff are held to a high standard of professional conduct. No one should die in fear or agony, while guards or medical staff defy procedure and dismiss inmates’ humanity by ignoring their obvious distress. We say with many voices united as one: This must change!

We recognize that some staff do their best to remain professional in a difficult environment. But the deaths and injuries at the jail clearly demonstrate that a new approach is sorely needed. That is why people from all walks of life gathered Aug. 19 to lay out strategies to compel city and county officials to take action. We urge community members to join in our initiatives to:

  • March and rally Saturday. Contact Derek Ford at syracuse@answercoalition or Luz Encarnacion at luzencarnacion
  • Document stories from the jail. Contact Bridget Owens at or 435-3565, or Barrie Gewanter at or 471-2821.
  • Call for an independent oversight commission or special prosecutor. Contact Walt Dixie at 474-0922 or
  • Address the county proposal to privatize the medical care in the jail. Contact Barrie Gewanter at or 471-2821 or Emily NaPier at

Signing this letter are: Preston Fagan for the Syracuse Onondaga Branch of the NAACP, Luz Encarnacion for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Barrie Gewanter and Dennis Heaphy for the NY Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU/ACLU), Walter Dixie for the National Action Network (NAN), Emily NaPier for the ACTS Justice Task Force, Rev. Craig Schaub and Aly Wane for the ACTS Civil Rights for Immigrants Issue Team, Rev. Kevin Agee of Hopps Memorial CME Church, Derek Ford and Ashley Sauers for the ANSWER Coalition, Bill Cuddy and Bill Cawley for Jail Ministry, Sally Johnston for Disabled in Action of Greater Syracuse, Andy Mager and Jessica Maxwell for the Syracuse Peace Council.

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