BookView Excerpt: Alfred B. DelBello: His Life and Times, a biography by John A. Lipman

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From the Blurb

As mayor of his native Yonkers—the third largest city in New York—Alfred DelBello defied an ingrained, corrupt, inefficient patronage system to bring fiscal sanity and better living conditions to Yonkers’ citizens. DelBello then became the first Democrat to be elected Westchester County Executive, where he balanced fiscal conservatism and an innovative approach to funding with improvements to health care, the environment, the criminal justice system, and equal rights.

DelBello brought a bipartisan approach to his role as New York State Governor Mario M. Cuomo’s first lieutenant governor in the early 1980s. Even after his resignation in 1985, he continued to pursue many of his political passions in business and, in so doing, become what Socrates would have called “a citizen of the world.”

In an age in which climate change, health care, and social injustice are key issues and bipartisanship an endangered species, one politician remains a not-so-distant mirror of how to work across party lines to ensure quality of life for all Americans.


Praise for Alfred B. DelBello: His Life and Times, a biography :

“Without dedicated public servants, as yourself, at the local level, our efforts here in Washington would be for naught. I am very much aware of your personal commitment in this regard and I thank you for it….”
– Jimmy Carter, former U.S. President, writing to Al DelBello in 1977.

“Al’s legacy is bigger than all of us, touching each of our lives, even today. A kind, generous and brilliant man who was a mentor to me, (Al) proved that anything is possible for a boy from Yonkers.”
– Michael Spano, mayor, city of Yonkers

Chapter 15



The summer of 1981 was a particular sizzler across the New York metropolitan area. Children were eager to play outside on ball fields and in parks. Their parents sweltered in shorts and sundresses, while those that worked in corporate jobs were grateful for their air-conditioned offices.

A political pressure cooker was rapidly building steam as well. The Westchester County Jail, already overcrowded and under-cooled, had for years been the subject of attention from the press and a source of frustration in DelBello’s office. The jail, located on the Grasslands Reservation in Valhalla, held inmates prior to their trials and before sentencing. The attached penitentiary housed prisoners for up to one year after their convictions. While most Westchester municipalities had their own local jails for short-term holdings, the county jail and penitentiary were the final stops for many of the county’s inmates.

The jail had been built in the 1930s, a higher-capacity replacement for Westchester’s century-old prison facility. The prison was designed to house roughly 260 inmates. A separate women’s correctional unit of roughly twenty inmates was opened on the bottom floor of the jail in 1967. The combined facilities were considered adequate at the time of their construction, but recent overcrowding and outdated internal security systems had become a problem. During the late 1970s, as many as 400 men were sometimes crammed into a jail built to house a little more than half that number. Prisoners were doubled up in small cells. Sanitation was inadequate, and recreation, library and vocational facilities were often unavail-able because of security concerns from the overpopulation.

Pressure cooker

During DelBello’s first year as county executive, he worried that overcrowding threatened the jail’s safety. The newly-formed Westchester Association of Corrections and Probation Officers prepared a report for him critical of the admin-istration at the county jail and penitentiary. In one incident, drugs were stolen from the penitentiary dispensary. Drug smuggling and use among prisoners were frequent, and one prisoner died from an overdose.

Poor supervision, lack of administrative support and staff turnover plagued the jails. Some inmates even claimed that they had a “better deal” than the corrections officers.

Most inside county government knew DelBello had in-herited this problem. He took the report seriously, although he received immediate criticism from those who wrote it for not releasing it to the public, even though it contained confi-dential information. Drug abuse was a growing problem on city streets and in suburban enclaves alike. Violent crime associated with the drug trade was on the rise. More people were being arrested and incarcerated, and the nature of the prison population had changed. They were angrier, more dangerous, more defiant and, because of the drug trade, more numerous. DelBello, long a proponent of drug treatment pro-grams such as Renaissance to rehabilitate addicts, had already taken several other more immediate actions, including hiring additional corrections officers to help with the problem of understaffing. He had also approved twenty-two additional jail cells in the 1980 budget and reluctantly supported the construction of seventy-five more. But he knew creating more jail cells wasn’t the only solution.

One of his first and most important actions as county executive was in hiring Albert D. Gray Jr. as the new correc-tions commissioner. Gray had a solid, no-nonsense reputation and exemplary record. He had been a captain in the United States Marines. He had bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Columbia University and had served as a member of the New Jersey State Police. He became the superintendent of New Jersey’s Trenton State Prison, home to some of the metro area’s most notorious criminals.

When Gray joined the administration in 1974, he replaced Robert Wright, the longtime corrections commissioner, who had presided over the growing problems at the county correc-tion facilities. Wright, only months from retirement, had been a competent public servant, but he didn’t have the experience to handle the growing prison population and the more malevolent nature of the crimes that inmates had committed.

Only two weeks into his new job, Gray was quick to ack-nowledge some of the shortcomings that were being reported by corrections officers – understaffing in both the infirmary and kitchen, two places where thefts of material and equip-ment could easily result in physical harm or death; officers being pulled off their stations to accompany prisoners to court or the medical dispensary; shortages of corrections staff to conduct adequate searches for drugs and contraband; and an overall frustration among corrections officers that their con-cerns were falling on the deaf ears of supervisors.

The inmates complained as well. Overcrowding deprived inmates of recreational time. Facilities were unsanitary or inadequate. Proper medical care was lacking. Gray wanted inmates paid more adequately for in-prison work. He wanted more education and counseling programs to steer them away from drugs and crime when they were released. He also wanted an end to any abuse of prisoners. Prior to his arrival, there had been a number of suspected beatings and racial taunts inflicted by guards. No one was guiltless. Adequate staffing and oversight would be good for both inmates and corrections officers.

Gray immediately implemented new procedures for su-pervising inmates at the medical dispensary, where lax security posed the most significant problem. He acknowledged that much had been done on his watch to clean up some of the problems that had predated his command. Even the state Commission of Correction, while admitting to some ongoing problems, specifically cited Gray as having taken steps to improve the function of the facility, noting that the West-chester facility was run much better than other county jails. But overcrowding was still a challenge.

In some respects, that overcrowding was a measure of DelBello’s success in clamping down on crime, something that voters had demanded. But that success was taxing an anti-quated corrections infrastructure. DelBello had long suspected that a key problem was the bail process. The conditions of bail were too severe for low-level, nonviolent offenders, many of whom could have been released on their own recognizance or placed in less restrictive minimum-security halfway houses. The county jail simply did not have the capacity to house all of those whom the law had incarcerated, especially for pretrial holding.

By early 1981, DelBello had repeatedly appealed to Stephen Chinlund, chairman of the state’s Commission of Correction in Albany, about prison overcrowding. In February, his admin-istration sent a letter to the commission regarding the drastic shortage of space at the Westchester jail and the lack of temporary availability at other local jails and even state facilities, such as armories. DelBello enlisted the help of the board of legislators, passing a resolution to compel the state commission to comply with its own mandate to designate a location for detention when the county prisons run out of room. That appeal and subsequent appeals were completely ignored. DelBello threatened to initiate judicial proceedings.

He had, however, taken other steps. He formed a twenty-person “Task Force on Jail Overcrowding,” made up of judges, commissioners, corrections staff, nonprofit directors and legal aid groups, which set an ambitious agenda to reduce the prison population quickly. Jail space wasn’t the only concern. The group also addressed strategies to avoid recidivism as well as pretrial approaches to rehabilitation, such as alternative dispute resolution, drug counseling, psychiatric help, commu-nity service restitution and shoplifter-reform programs that would avoid incarceration altogether.

The task force participants were especially concerned with “intermittent sentencing” – weekend holdings of those arrest-ed and indicted, which flooded the prison each Friday. Releas-ing many of them on their own recognizance would avoid the worst of overcrowding. The task force also agreed that bail was set too high for low-level offenders. One of Westchester’s judges, Isaak Rubin, agreed to put together a meeting of county and local judges to reduce this somewhat arbitrary way of holding indicted people over the weekend. Treatment Alternatives to Street Crime (TASC), a nonprofit funded by the county’s Department of Community Mental Health, had already recommended to Rubin the release of thirty-five in-mates to take part in the program as an alternative to incar-ceration. DelBello called upon nonprofit and civic organiza-tions to participate, so that crime prevention could be seen as a community challenge, not simply a law-enforcement matter.

DelBello had already arranged an ongoing program to hear from the prisoners about prison conditions. For weeks, a committee of inmates and prison staff had begun to examine facility problems from the inside. This was something that had never been tried before in Westchester. It made clear to the inmates that DelBello was serious about finding a solution to their plights. The staff of the committee reported to Warden Norwood Jackson. A former football player for the Cleveland Browns and an Airborne Ranger for the U.S. Army before moving into the corrections field, Jackson would eventually become correction commissioner himself. As warden, he reported the concerns of the committee to Commissioner Gray.

This initiative was timely, but not timely enough to reduce the jail’s overcrowding in the sweltering summer heat. In late June, prisoners seeking to address some of the problems staged a peaceful demonstration at the jail. The protest was led by Khalil Mustafa, an inmate who had become an inside advocate for prison reform. But Mustafa, who was involved in the internal meetings, thought things weren’t moving fast enough. He was worried about a riot. Ironically, he would be the one to light the fuse inadvertently.

Jailhouse rocked

Less than two weeks after the protest, Mustafa was suddenly transferred to Riker’s Island in the East River between Queens and the Bronx. There was talk that he had been suggesting a violent prison revolt, though other prisoners with whom he had the discussion hadn’t agreed to that. A listening device legally installed in the library had captured the conversation. Word of the transfer spread among the inmates. Around four thirty p.m. on July 10, during the early part of dinner time, roughly thirty inmates in the cafeteria began rioting, smash-ing dining hall furniture and yelling. The prison went on immediate lockdown. The corrections officers retreated, lock-ing gates behind them and securing the riot within the cellblock area. But the damage was done. Cell doors were torn off their hinges and common areas were trashed. More than 300 men now had control of the prison.

DelBello was in his office on the ninth floor of the county office building in White Plains when the word came in. He was meeting with aides when his secretary put through the call. It was Commissioner Gray, who said, “The jail is rioting. We’re on lockdown.”

 Stunned, DelBello was momentarily at a loss for words.

“Has anyone been hurt? Has anyone been taken hostage?” Gray could tell that DelBello was shaken.

“No, Al,” Gray said. “Fortunately, all the corrections staff got out and locked the doors behind them. We got the admin-istrative staff out. There’s lots of noise, but I think so far this thing is basically without injuries.” He paused. “We knew this was coming.”

The county had already scored a small but significant victory in the riot: There were no hostages. That was not an accident. DelBello had worked for years to ensure an extensive training program that taught corrections officers exactly what to do in a prisoner uprising. When the riot began in the dining area, the officers immediately retreated and locked the doors and gates behind them. Then they evacuated the adminis-trative offices. The prisoners were loose, but only within the same cellblocks they inhabited daily.

A number of the inmates knew that the county executive had been trying to improve prison conditions. DelBello had established a committee of prisoners and corrections officers to deal with the problem of overcrowding. He had been fighting for months to get more resources from the state. Word had certainly gotten around the prison that the county executive was at least trying to make things better. It may have saved lives.

Within the hour, the word “riot” was on every reporter’s typewriter and on TV and radio. It was also on the lips of most Republican politicians, who were already eyeing a revolt of their own. The November election was just four months away. Given DelBello’s contentious relationship with the former sheriff, Tom Delaney, the Republicans saw the riot as their golden opportunity. Paint DelBello as weak on crime and diffident on law enforcement, and they might triumph in November. Within hours, they were writing press releases and teaming up with the conservative-leaning police association.

“Where are you now?” DelBello asked Gray.

“I’m on my way back to Valhalla. I got word of this just as I stepped out of my kid’s dental appointment. We set up a perimeter around the prison – lots of guards and police coming in from surrounding towns. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“Good. I’ll call Coughlin in Albany and let him know we’re on our way over there. He’ll provide some backup,” DelBello said with some relief, referring to Thomas Coughlin, the state corrections commissioner. “And Al,” DelBello added, “let’s make sure this thing goes as peacefully as possible. We know there are a few people who want to go in guns-a-blazin’. I don’t want a repeat of Attica.”

“I’m with you on that,” Gray affirmed.

DelBello hung up. He asked his secretary to get Coughlin on the phone right away to put the state’s Corrections Emer-gency Response Team on alert. The CERT team was euphe-mistically referred to as “Orange Crush,” a popular soft drink at the time.The disquieting nickname reflected the bright orange color emblazoned on the uniforms and their capabili-ties in riot suppression. The team stood ready with helmets, shotguns, mace and tear gas to quell any disturbance that might get out of hand. DelBello didn’t think he would need them right away. But he might need them later, and he hoped their deployment would not end in bloodshed.

Ten years earlier, during the Attica prison riot, a number of corrections staff were taken hostage. Ultimately, the police and riot teams rushed the facility in a disastrous attempt to end the standoff. This action resulted in thirty-nine dead, including ten correction officers (an additional three inmates and a correction officer were killed at the beginning of the riot).Although there were no hostages in the Westchester riot – and the Westchester County Jail had less violent offenders than Attica – DelBello knew the wrong move could spark disaster.

Attica wasn’t the only insurrection in the state’s prison history. At the end of 1973, a series of small jail riots took place in Rockland County, across the Hudson River from West-chester. Although no one was gravely injured, a section of the facility was badly damaged. Clearly, jails throughout New York State had problems, and Westchester was no exception. It was a systemic issue that needed fixing. But right now, this was DelBello’s problem. No corrections officers or prison staff were at risk. The inmates were contained. Anyone seeking to make political hay would do it regardless of the outcome. A peaceful resolution was his only priority.

Into the fray

DelBello and several aides arrived at the Valhalla prison com-plex shortly before five p.m. on what should have been a relaxing Friday evening. The area was swarming with police, EMTs, and reporters. About 230 heavily armed corrections officers and cops were gathered in a cordoned area outside the three-story prison. Many more were coming. All the munici-palities in the county had provided aid in the form of police, fire, and medical assistance. The ninety-five-degree heat underscored the searing nature of the situation.

DelBello set up an emergency command center, run from an air-conditioned mobile trailer and powered by the same source that powered the lights for police operations and TV cameras. He arranged for aides to provide hourly updates to keep the press fully informed. Engaging the public would diffuse fear and act as a bulwark against the rumors and innuendoes that DelBello’s political adversaries were already preparing. He and Gray used Gray’s prison office as an internal command post.

Water and electricity were shut off at the start of the uprising to exert control over the prisoners. But DelBello knew that a forceful response could lead to violence. The prisoners were not organized. They were nervous, hot, flailing. He had to bring down the emotional temperature. The prison’s listed capacity was 263 people, but there were 409 men inside awaiting trial or sentencing. Starting negotiations right away would calm things down.

DelBello’s first step was to gain the trust of the inmates. He asked if Gray and Joseph M. Stancari, the assistant com-missioner, would be willing to enter the facility. They agreed without hesitation. The two men, unarmed, had to ascend a ladder to the roof. Then they crawled through a heating duct to access the area where inmates had taken control. County staff, already in telephone contact with the inmates, an-nounced the men were coming in.

Once inside, they were greeted by a small group of roughly twenty skeptical prisoners. But it had the right effect. They got the prisoners to agree to meet with the county executive. By that time, corrections officers were able to access one of the gates leading to the prison block. At roughly six p.m., DelBello entered the jail through the gates. He insisted that there be no corrections officers and no guns – just words. It was a risky move, but he believed that building trust was the key to ending the riot peacefully.

DelBello, Gray, and Stancari set up a conference table in the prison’s gymnasium. They spent the next eight hours negotiating with the inmates and listening to complaints about overcrowding, restrictions on recreational and educa-tional activities, and racial bias in the justice system. Although crimes were committed by a cross-section of society, the burden of imprisonment seemed to fall much more heavily on black and Latino men, who composed ninety percent of the prison population and faced mostly white juries – a situation that unfortunately has not changed much in this country. They objected to judges that casually set bail far beyond their financial means, often without regard to the severity of the crimes. They voiced concerns about periodic abuse from corrections officers. And it was hot, miserably hot. None of this was anything new to DelBello and his team, but they needed to hear it directly from the men themselves. And the men, in turn, needed to hear from him.

Around eleven p.m., a group of thirty men wielding broken pipes took over part of the women’s facility (the women had been moved out). Apparently unaware of the ongoing negotiations between DelBello and their fellow inmates, they even broke through a wall in Gray’s office, forcing a quick retreat by county correction and political staff. Yet by early Saturday morning, roughly two-thirds of the rioting prisoners had voluntarily returned to their cells. Negotiations with the remaining inmates continued, but no agreement had been reached. Exhausted after more than eight hours of discussion, DelBello, Gray and Stancari withdrew from the prison before dawn.

Not all the prisoners were cooperating, however. After a second outburst, DelBello called upon Coughlin to deploy Orange Crush. It was more of a display than a needed inter-vention – and it worked. The CERT team entered the prison yard, a wall of muscle, helmets and shotguns chanting in unison while marching in precise military syncopation. The parade elicited howls of derision and name-calling from many of the inmates. But it made the remaining rebels nervous. The inmates knew that the insurrection would end. The only choice they had to make was how it would end.

Perspiring through a short-sleeve shirt in the midday sun, DelBello reentered the prison’s gymnasium, where he met with the inmates a second time. As they finalized the condi-tions of their surrender, the pipe-wielding marauders – who had become an irritation throughout the entire insurrection – broke through a concrete wall outside the gymnasium and tried to enter through the gym doors.

A novel security team was at the ready – a band of volun-teer firefighters armed with a hose. A blast of water greeted the assailants, forcing them back. It was a successful and almost comical alternative to tear gas, billy clubs, and guns. The insurrectionists ran from the gymnasium doors. The talks continued.

Richard Ali Lindsay – a man whose last name reminded DelBello of the former mayor of New York City – was the inmates’ lead negotiator. Bright and serious, Lindsay accepted a list of compromises. It wasn’t everything the inmates wanted, but it was a lot more than they had a day earlier. In a press conference on the gym’s basketball court, DelBello and Lindsay announced their terms before a microphone, with members of the press in attendance. A review of all inmate requests for bail reduction would begin Monday morning. Administrative Judge Joseph Gagliardi would have face-to-face discussions with the inmates concerning their grievances. District Attorney Carl Vergari would meet with the inmates in a subsequent listening session. Inmate representatives would meet monthly with DelBello. Perhaps most importantly, there would be no physical or legal reprisals against any inmate. At the conclusion of the negotiations, Lindsay shook DelBello’s hand. “We will allow ourselves to be locked in tonight,” he said.

The riot was over without a single shot fired. All the inmates, including Lindsay and his fellow negotiators – lined up in the prison yard to accept orders from the CERT team. Within minutes, the inmates were stripped naked and searched. All the cells were scoured, and any homemade weapons or contraband were removed. Most of the cell doors were damaged and unsecured, but the inmates agreed to reside there for the night.

Yet on Sunday, the corrections officers walked off the job. Although the riot had essentially ended, they felt they weren’t being treated fairly and that their safety had been compro-mised – even though they had spent the duration of the uprising in a secure area away from the prison melee. As a result, nurses who had shown up to work to assist with any injuries that might have occurred were forced to abandon their own posts. Once again, it seemed that police and corrections officers were lined up against DelBello, despite his having ended the riot peacefully.

During the next few weeks, the jail was gradually repaired. Inmates and corrections officers returned to their normal activities. The event was not without repercussions for both DelBello and the officers. There were serious charges of vengeful punishment by the CERT team, physical mistreat-ment, denial of showers, with prisoners being tightly hand-cuffed, pushed around naked, threatened and humiliated. The event could have been DelBello’s political downfall. The fallout from the riot would raise every political hackle the Repub-licans could muster. And it would be led by his November challenger in the county executive election, State Senator Joseph Pisani.

The Monday-morning rebellion

The first real “shots” of the riot were fired Monday morning. Issuing an absurdly late press release, the Tri-County Feder-ation of Police Inc. began blasting away at the two Als, DelBello and Gray. They viewed DelBello’s cool strategy as a missed opportunity to use brute force. They asserted that the CERT team should have been deployed Friday night rather than using orderly military precision that peacefully ended the insurrection by Sunday. It was like yelling “fire” after the firefighters had already extinguished the blaze.

Pisani, the Republican Party’s primary pick for county executive, sent DelBello a letter – widely circulated to the pub-lic – ripping him for everything that had happened. The letter failed to mention that not a single weapon had been deployed (except for a firehose) and that the riot had ended peacefully with the ascent of the inmates.

More press release than correspondence, the letter opined:

“The destructive, humiliating, and financially disastrous events of last weekend at the County Jail are without prece-dent in the history of Westchester County. You and your subordinates have sent a clear message to the violent under-world that physical defiance, rioting, vandalism, and open rebellion will be rewarded by high-level negotiations and concessions.” The remainder of the letter was full of accusa-tions, most of them patently false, that an uprising wasn’t anticipated (DelBello had warned about it for months), that they had done nothing to prevent it or that the administration failed to “contain and suppress” the uprising.

But DelBello had letters of his own – all the letters he had sent to the state Commission of Correction months earlier, demanding help with overcrowding. He reminded voters of the Jail Overcrowding Task Force he had established weeks before the riot, the work he had done with state judges on pretrial holding reform, cooperating with local nonprofits on alternatives to jail, and proposing counseling programs to reduce recidivism. Most important, he had indeed contained and suppressed the uprising without violence, ending it within thirty-six hours.

Later that week, Pisani held a press conference in which he stated that he would have retaken the facility “by force with gas” and weapons. He claimed officers were attacked and held in “armlocks and headlocks,” despite no evidence of such as-saults. Gray, responding in back-to-back press conferences, retorted that such action would have led “to a mass graveyard.”

But DelBello was already a step ahead of his challenger. By the time Pisani’s press conference started, some of the revised bail conditions that had been peacefully negotiated during the riot were already taking effect. Of eighty-seven cases re-viewed, four inmates were released on their own recog-nizance, including one who had originally been given a bail of $500 for petty larceny weeks earlier and another jailed with a hefty bail for fourth-degree mischief and harassment. It was clear that prison overcrowding was due, at least in part, to unnecessary pretrial holding procedures.

Several county legislators tried to feed on Pisani’s argu-ment. Egged on by the unprepared, careless testimony of one of the prison system’s associate wardens, Ed Brady and Joseph William Christiana Sr., Republicans from Thornwood and Mount Vernon, respectively, called for Gray’s resignation. Get rid of one “Al,” they thought, and the other might fall. Gray, however, wasn’t going to budge. Diane A. Keane, a southern county Republican, accused Gray of having done no riot-control training and not having chemical agents (such as tear gas) for such emergencies. But Gray provided a memo detailing the extensive emergency training his department had undertaken during the previous four years.

Keane headed the temporary Committee on Corrections, created by DelBello’s former Yonkers City Council colleague and now Board of Legislators member Andy O’Rourke. The committee’s purpose was to find solutions to the problem of overcrowding in the county jail. It became a fishing expedition to net DelBello in advance of November’s election. A trail of accusatory letters and condescending requests for county administrative staff to appear before the board seemed to counter the committee’s purpose. DelBello noted in response to Keane that he had specifically briefed the board of legislators on the first day of the riot and had arranged a tour of the facility for the legislators afterward. He added that dealing promptly with jail problems to prevent another uprising was paramount and should be done without regard to politics. He still offered his cooperation but warned her he wouldn’t tolerate a witch hunt.

A report on the riot from the state Commission of Correction – the same agency that had been so unhelpful during the months leading up to the riot – was filled with a number of errors. Perhaps most frustrating, the report was created without interviewing any county staff, including DelBello and Gray. DelBello, in a letter to the state commis-sioner, expressed in writing his objection to these mistakes. But then he switched gears – as he always did – addressing each item in the commission’s report, correcting errors, stating where progress had been made, promising frequent updates and welcoming further responses. He requested that the state commission interview him and all senior corrections staff. He offered his help in any way he could. It was DelBello’s go-to strategy – always be focused and forward-looking, even when frustrated.

Justice no longer delayed

In the coming months, DelBello oversaw much-improved systems for bail, sentencing and alternatives to incarceration. Prison crowding was on the decline. New equipment and facilities replaced those destroyed in the riot, and corrections officers were given better training. Prisoners met regularly to voice complaints and provide input. Once again, Westchester County became a model for the rest of the state. Other county jails, correction officials and state agencies rushed to catch up. DelBello had turned a crisis on its ear, furthering Westchest-er’s preeminence as a national leader in public policy.

The Republican-led State Senate cobbled together its own partisan report. A State Senate minority report, submitted by Democrat Jeremy Weinstein, was much more realistic. It highlighted the problems county officials had faced in finding alternative prison sites to ease overcrowding and praised the county for its innovative programs to prevent pretrial incar-ceration and reduce recidivism.

Perhaps no public statement made as clear the success of DelBello’s response to the riot as a letter he received from the Institute of Judicial Administration. Robert B. McKay, the institute’s director, had been directly involved with the New York State Special Commission on Attica a decade earlier. He acknowledged the desperate situation New York and many other states faced with prison overcrowding. But he also highlighted what he saw in DelBello as an exceedingly rare and valued attribute:

“Although the uprising and takeover of the county jail constituted grave threats to the security of the institution and to the safety of correction officers and inmates, it is truly remarkable that the matter was resolved without physical injury to any of the participants. When the institution was completely under the control of the inmates, there must have been a very real temptation to use force to regain control. In my judgment, you and your colleagues who have principal responsibility for the county jail exercised admirable restraint in rejecting the use of force. It was an act of great courage for Commissioner Gray and Associate Warden Stancari to enter the jail immediately after the takeover, unarmed except with the power of persuasion. When you negotiated with the inmates inside the institution on the following day, that, too, was brave. I commend all three of you for achieving a peaceful resolution of the uprising without any diminution in your authority while gaining new credibility with the inmates.”

The Republicans had made a perilous political mistake. They thought the prison riot would be the crystalizing issue for the 1981 election. It wasn’t. Ironically, another law enforcement issue – the grand jury hearings examining the corrupt former Republican sheriff, Tom Delaney – may have acted as a counterweight to Pisani’s accusations about DelBello’s culpability in the riot.

But the more likely case was that people simply weren’t concerned. Crime was down more than sixteen percent in six months. The economy was booming. Arts and culture, youth programs, public transportation and environmental protec-tion were roaring ahead. The Westchester Medical Center was heading toward financial independence. The new waste-to-energy plant would soon begin construction, relieving tax-payers of tens of millions of dollars in waste remediation costs. Westchester was a much better place to live. And DelBello had made it so.

Three months later, he soundly defeated Pisani, ushering in his third – and final – term as Westchester County execu-tive.

Chapter 15: Lockdown

“Valhalla Inmates Seize Cellblocks; No Guards Held,” The New York Times, July 11, 1981.

Bacerra, Frank Jr., “Lohud Look Back: Inmates Riot at County Jail in 1981,” The Journal News, Aug. 13, 2019.

Martin, Neil, “Jail Report Spurs Furor,” The Reporter Dispatch, May 24, 1974.

Feron, James, Westchester Journal, The New York Times, April 20, 1980.

Martin, Neil, “County Guards Unhappy,” The Herald Statesman, Sept. 6, 1974.

Letter from Al DelBello to Stephen Chinlund, chairman, New York State Commission of Correction, Feb. 27, 1981.

An Act to Authorize Institution of Judicial Proceedings Against the State Commission of Correction (draft), 1981.

Memo, Alfred B. DelBello, “Priorities for Jail Overcrowding Task Force,” July 9, 1981.

Memorandum of Record from Ted Salem, special assistant to the commissioner, July 2, 1981.

Memo from Sally Birch to Al DelBello and Robert Dolan, July 31, 1981.

Feron, James, “DelBello Calls Jail Uprising Report ‘Distortion’,” The New York Times, Sept. 27, 1981

Feron, James, “Guards Charged with Brutality in Westchester,” The New York Times, Feb. 26, 1982.

Haberman, Clyde, “The Lessons of Attica: 25 Years Later,” The New York Times, Sept. 10, 1996.

Knight, Robert, “Jail Rioters Set 4 Fires in Recent Months,” The Journal News, Dec. 28, 1973.

Whitehouse, Franklin, “Working to Prevent A Recurrence At Jail,” The New York Times, July 19, 1981.

Letter, Westchester People’s Action Coalition, Inc., Westchester Citizen’s Oversight Coalition for Justice in the Jail, July 29, 1981.

Feiden, Doug, “Dramatic Finale to Two-Day Rampage,” New York Post, July 13, 1981.

Weinstein, Jeremy S., Report of the Senate Minority Crime and Correction Committee, “Westchester Jail Disturbance,” Sept. 24, 1981.

Press Release, Tri-County Federation of Police Inc., July 13, 1981.

Letter to The Hon. Alfred B. DelBello from State Sen. Joseph R. Pisani, July 15, 1981.

Letter from Al DelBello to Stephen Chinlund, chairman, New York State Commission of Correction, Feb. 27, 1981.

Letter from Albert D. Gray, Jr., to Stephen Chinlund, chairman, New York State Commission of Correction, Feb. 4, 1981

Greene, Donna, “Pisani: ‘I Would Have Gassed Prisoners’,” July 18, 1981.

Letter from Alfred B. DelBello to Kevin McNiff, chairman, New York State Commission on Correction, Sept. 4, 1981.

Feron, James, “DelBello Calls Jail Uprising Report ‘Distortion’,” The New York Times, Sept. 27, 1981.

Kriss, Gary, “Crime Index Falls 16.7% in 6 Months,” The New York Times, Sept. 12, 1982.


: John A. Lipman is a writer and public policy consultant whose work has appeared in publications such as The Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, and Philadelphia Inquirer. Lipman served as the chief planner and deputy director of the Cape Cod Commission, an environmental agency of Barnstable County. He also served for three years under Massachusetts governors Weld and Cellucci as the director of growth planning for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has a B.A. from Bates College, an M.B.A. from Boston University, and a Master of Public Policy from the University of Maryland.

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