The topic of inmate suicides at the Erie County Holding Center and guarding the rights of inmates dominated a wide-ranging public discussion with Sheriff Timothy B. Howard Wednesday at the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library.
About 70 people attended the often contentious forum, sponsored by 100 Black Men of Greater Buffalo.
Things got off to a rocky start after Stephanie Allen of East Aurora read a lengthy letter from someone she identified as a current inmate at the Alden Correctional Facility. The letter alluded to a list of grievances alleging verbal harassment of inmates and violations of inmate rights.
"Some verbal and mental abuse is one of the very reasons why individuals would rather commit suicide than have to put up with it," Allen said, as she read the letter.
The letter went on to charge that the formal grievance protocol at the facility is ineffectual. The letter writer also complained about a lack of cable TV at the facility, a lack of access to board games and complaints of 48 inmates having to share a single microwave.
"This causes fights and it's over who's next," Allen said.
"My first thought is, this sounds tough," the sheriff said. "You have an inmate in jail who has to share a microwave with 50 other people. I suspect there are a lot of people in our community who don't have microwaves."
Howard's reply drew rebukes from some in the audience. One man in the audience responded: "Of all the things to respond to, that is the last thing you should be talking about."
Howard insisted he was not being truculent.
"I doubt it's as bad as the situation in that letter," he said. "If anyone thinks that I would come here and say that the jail is a perfect place, and that staff always does what they're supposed to do, let me surprise you and tell you that I know that that's not the case.
"We know that, from time-to-time, our employees don't do the right thing."
Holding Center Superintendent Robert Koch, county comptroller David J. Shenk and county Legislator Timothy Hogues, D-Buffalo, joined Howard for what turned out to be more of a panel discussion. Hogues is chairman of the Legislature's Public Safety Committee and voiced his support for creation of an impartial omsbudsman position to handle inmate grievances.
Howard has previously stated his opposition to a jail omsbudsman, noting inmates can make those complaints through two community liaison deputies who work for the Sheriff's Office.
Allen, in the letter she read, noted that inmates are distrustful of that system because "valid complaints get ignored because the very people you complain about are the ones reviewing your complaints." She and others at the meeting encouraged Howard to use profits from the department's commissary to fund an omsbudsman.
Those funds, they argued are supposed to be used for the welfare and rehabilitation of inmates. If they're not being used for that purpose, Rev. Eugene L. Pierce, a former chaplain at the correctional facility, urged Howard to relinquish those funds to the department's general fund.
Controversies under Howard's watch range from a spate of inmate suicides and an investigation of conditions at the two jails by the U.S. Justice Department, but the 41-year law enforcement veteran argued that problems at the Holding Center and the Alden Correctional Facility could be traced to a shortage of manpower.
"We have slightly more than half of the number of first-line supervisors that the state recommends that we should have," Howard said. "This is a budget issue, and with more supervisors, we would have more supervision."
The sheriff noted that the 871 employees in his department is the same number as 15 years ago, and 175 fewer than the department had under his predecessor, Patrick Gallivan.
On the issue of suicides at the Holding Center, Charlie Bowman, interim director of the Western New York Peace Center, noted that there were 11 between 2004 and 2011 compared with half that many suicides at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp during the same period.
"Their suicide rate at Guantanamo Bay, where we have tortured people, is half the suicide rate in Erie County Holding Center," Bowman said, "and the question I have is why?"
Howard speculated that the Guantanamo military facility has a superior ratio of oversight staff compared with the number of inmates at the Holding Center.
"The truth is that the federal government's own study, part of which was quoted by the federal government in making their case against Erie County, acknowledges that most suicides occur within the first 48 hours of incarceration," Howard said. The population at Guantanamo has been pretty much the same the population since it started, with only an occasional new person brought in."