The Reporter goes to jail

TARA SMITH | The two cells that comprise the Shelter Island jailhouse.

Shelter Islanders pride themselves on having eyeballed every inch of their town, from buildings to boat docks.

But there’s one place very few residents have ever seen. And those that have are, well, let’s just say a bit reluctant to talk about the experience.

Hoosegow, the clink, the cooler or the slammer, whatever you call it, the history of the Shelter Island jail is not well documented and doesn’t give up its secrets easily. Shelter Island Historical Society archivist Phyllis Wallace could only come up with one reference, and that was from 1922, and it wasn’t about a jail but a lack of one.

From an unidentified newspaper, an item appeared with a dateline “Shelter Island, N.Y. Sept. 18. This town, small of area but large in virtue, with no poor in the alms house and no children as county charges, finds a burglary so unusual that the Justices of the Peace, Sheriff John F. Kelly says, did not know exactly what to do with the case. And after three Justices had conferred on the alleged crime they sent to Riverhead for assistance.”

By the late 1930s, the rare miscreant was spared a ferry ride in shackles and could bed down behind bars on the Island.

Overnight accommodations used to take place in a cell in the basement of the old Town Hall.  Where the jail is today once housed offices of the Town Supervisor, Town Clerk, and Tax Assessor, with the Police Department operating out of the basement of the Depression-era building. This arrangement remained until 1999, when Town Hall moved to its current location and the police department took over the building.

Though most crime on Shelter Island is dealt with without a stay in jail overnight, Police Chief Jim Read explained that every situation is different, and the crime dictates what further action is needed. According to the chief, the police will hold people overnight most often for felonies, drunk driving or domestic violence cases “to protect both the person involved and anyone else they could harm.”

The two jail cells are from 1937. But the cramped, warren-like layout of the building itself is  just about the only “ancient” features of the jail. Everything else is equipped for today’s fast-paced, ready-for-anything world of policing.

A lot happens before would-be prisoners hear the iron gate clanging behind them.

Once offenders are in custody and brought to the station, detention attendants, trained by the police department, search and monitor them.

“Since the Police Department doesn’t have any female officers right now, our female detention attendants are an integral part of what we do,” Chief Read said.

Interpreters are also on hand to defuse any confusion over language. They are able to explain on the officer’s behalf why the suspect has been arrested, what their rights are and what’s going to happen next. For languages the interpreter is unfamiliar with, they use a service called “Language Line” — think of a three-way call that can be translated into almost any language.

The person in custody is then taken downstairs to a room adjacent to the cells. Here an “Intoxylizer,” used to measure blood alcohol content, sits on a table next to an old fingerprinting station. A computer and monitor are in the corner for digital fingerprinting and a camera set-up for mug shots.

The wall prisoners stand in front of to have their mugs taken is painted dark gray — as in every jail statewide — to make identification easier.

Despite the antique-looking inkpad next to the Intoxylizer, an officer takes fingerprints digitally by pressing fingers down on a screen. Doing this digitally allows for an instant response from state and federal databases, which could lead to important arrests, the chief explained.

Throughout the entire process the person in custody is monitored by the attendants, who document everything from their physical and emotional state, to any property discovered on them and any medications they take.

“Everything is highly organized to protect both their rights and ours,” Chief Read said.

After all the paperwork, questioning, and analysis is complete, the person in custody is taken to one of two jail cells where they are kept until arraignment at Justice Court the next morning, or transferred to a different facility, such as the county jail in Riverhead, where they can apply for bail.

The two cells contain a simple bench accompanied by a stainless steel toilet preventing any damage a rambunctious prisoner might want to inflict. They are given a blanket made of thin, easily torn material and the cell door is locked.

“We treat people the way we’d want to be if we were in their shoes,” Chief Read said. “Mistakes happen. It’s important to respect their dignity.”