Space in the Yaphank Correctional Facility will be used to expand a program that helps find jobs and homes for inmates after their release while doubling as a first-of-its-kind intelligence network where officials can share information with leaders of other jails, Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon. Jr. announced Friday as he was sworn into office for his second term.
Toulon, the county's 67th sheriff, also announced plans to form a pair of task forces focusing on mental health and substance abuse among inmates and the community at large. Statistics show that 60% of the state's inmates have been diagnosed with mental health issues.
"There is both a drug and mental health epidemic on Long Island and I want to do all I can to help solve it," Toulon said during his inaugural address in Brentwood. "In the coming months, I will be creating a robust mental health initiative to try to expand access to services, drug and rehabilitation programs inside and outside of the jail to help put an end to this tragic cycle."
The task forces, Toulon said in a Newsday interview, would be comprised of community leaders, academics and family members who have struggled with these issues personally.
Toulon's inaugural, delayed from a December date because of the omicron variant, was filled with traditional political pomp and circumstance.
The event featured performances from the Police Department's Emerald Society Pipe Band and vocalist Paige Patterson and speeches from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), former Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), a video by former NYPD Commissioner William Bratton and the oath of office delivered by State Attorney General Letitia James.
"Sheriff Toulon is a public servant who sees the flaws in our system and finds new ways to disrupt and fix them," James said. "Sheriff Toulon is a public servant who sees people traveling from flawed paths and finds new ways to disrupt those journeys and fix those lives."
Toulon, a South Bronx native, spent much of his career supervising Rikers Island units and later serving as deputy commissioner of operations for the City Department of Corrections. Before his election as sheriff in 2017, Toulon, a Democrat, served as Suffolk's assistant deputy county executive for public safety.
During the first half of his first term, Toulon focused on rehabilitation and reentry programs, gangs, human trafficking and visiting with area students before the focus shifted to the pandemic and absorbing changes to bail laws.
With capital funding approved by the county legislature, Toulon plans to expand the Sheriff's Transition and Reentry Team [START] program that provides individuals exiting the Yaphank or Riverhead jails, along with inmates returning to Suffolk from state prison, with the resources to restart their lives.
The program, which has operated in a trailer since February 2020, has assisted more than 500 former inmates to find jobs, homes, obtain workforce skills and link them with mental health and substance abuse resources, he said. Participants in the program, Toulon said, have a 12% recidivism rate compared to the national average of 30%.
"The office is on the cutting edge in developing rehabilitation programs for those who are incarcerated here in Suffolk County," said Toulon, noting that 85% of Suffolk inmates return to their community. "We will continue to change the paradigm of jails and the criminal justice system, not only here in Suffolk County but throughout the nation."
Tracey Edwards, Long Island's regional director of the NAACP, said when incarceration is used as a response to social ills, families and communities suffer.
"Sheriff Toulon understands it's not about incarceration only," Edwards said. "It's about appropriate preparation to those incarcerated to come home to their community and to be productive so they can care for their families. Once you pay your debt you need to move forward from tribulations to restoration."
Toulon, who serves on the Intelligence Committee for Major County Sheriff's of America, said his office will be seeking funding to create the "In Custody Intelligence Network" to share information with correctional officials across the state and potentially throughout the East Coast, including New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Delaware.
King, who will help advise the network, praised Toulon's independence and perseverance.
"You cannot ask for a stronger person in law enforcement than Errol Toulon," King said. " … He is really a renaissance sheriff who gets it all done."