State regulators Tuesday said they will seek a court order forcing Erie County to hold no more than 910 inmates at its chronically crowded correctional facility in Alden.
The state Commission of Correction, which polices local jails, said Erie County officials have not acted swiftly enough to ready new space for prisoners at the facility in Alden and should not be allowed to exceed its capacity.
The population at Erie County's prison often climbs above the state limit, especially in summer months. For example, the prison held 970 on Sept. 6 and 935 on Monday. So the commission's staff said it will again go to court to force Erie County under its cap.
County leaders have discussed long-term solutions, such as expanding the use of home confinement. But the short-term solution might involve shipping inmates to jails run by other counties, which can cost $100 a day for each prisoner and tie up Erie County jail deputies transporting them to and from court.
The commission over the years has relaxed its rules to let Erie County squeeze in more inmates temporarily. But on Sept. 12 it issued a formal directive ordering the county to lower its prison population. On Tuesday, the three commissioners agreed to continue "variances" for only 60 more days, as the staff prepares for court.
Commission officials also said those 60 days will give them time to involve the incoming county executive, Christopher C. Collins, in finding solutions.
The crux of the problems cited by commission counsel Michael F. Donegan involves renovations to the Yankee Building, a three-story structure being used in Alden as overflow space when it does not yet meet the commission's requirements.
State officials expected jail-grade windows to be installed and other improvements completed by December. But county legislators approved a contract only recently, after clarifying that the contractor meets the county rule that it offer an apprentice-training program. Donegan said the company will now have months to complete the project, and it might linger until June.
The commission's staff also cited the county's decision to continue housing federal prisoners, implying Erie County could solve its problem if it shed about 60 federal captives and let them be held elsewhere. Brian C. Doyle, the Erie County undersheriff who handles the department's administrative matters, said that's easier said than done.
"To just kick them out wouldn't be a great scenario for us," he said, explaining the federal government years ago gave the county millions of dollars to expand its capacity in Alden on the condition that it accept federal prisoners. Further, the federal government gives Erie County about $90 for each day it houses one of its captives, and county budget makers count on that revenue.
"It's going to take a global solution," Doyle said when asked what will solve Erie County's crowding problem. "Getting people moved through the system as quickly as possible, getting state-ready inmates to state facilities as quickly as possible, using alternatives to incarceration and, in the worst alternative to taxpayers, either build more space or send prisoners to jails that have space."
State regulators have cited both the correctional facility in Alden and the Holding Center in downtown Buffalo for holding too many prisoners with too few guards. Since 2000 the populations at both facilities has spiked about 18 percent.
The Regional Institute at the University at Buffalo, asked to study the problem this year, concluded Erie County has too few alternatives to incarceration. Researchers said the county could open 42 jail beds a day if low-risk offenders serving 30- to 60-day sentences could serve half the sentence at home, monitored with electronic equipment.
The county also could open up beds if those offenders whose real problems involve addictions or mental health concerns are placed in treatment programs rather than cells.
For the understaffing problem, Sheriff Timothy B. Howard and his jailers have forced personnel to work overtime to meet the state's supervision requirements. The jail division's overtime bill hovers around $9 million a year, and Howard suggests alleviating that next year by adding 36 jail deputies.
Budget officials for departing County Executive Joel A. Giambra counter that adding jail deputies doesn't always lower overtime expenses. So they have offered to add more probation officers so that sentencing reports can be completed more quickly and recent convicts bound for state prisons can get there sooner.
When told of the commission's decision Tuesday, Giambra renewed his suggestion that Erie and other counties oppose the state rule that they hold state-ready inmates and parole offenders until the state prison system retrieves them.
"I think the sheriff should handcuff the state-ready inmates to the fence at the state prison in Albion," Giambra said. "The real solution is for the state to pay the real costs of their state-ready prisoners."