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Buffalo police cellblock debuts; Ends nine years' use of Holding Center

At 7 this morning, there will be a grand opening of sorts for Buffalo's newest place to catch a quick meal, some shut-eye and, if needed, a shower.

Unlike some of downtown's finer hotels providing sweeping views of Lake Erie, there are no windows, and room service is nonexistent. But a lumpy mattress will never be a problem because there is no such creature comfort, unless two strips of oak planking that double as a bench can be considered bedding.

Starting to get the idea?

Welcome to Buffalo's spanking-new cellblock in the bowels of Buffalo City Court's basement. And while it may sound a bit austere, consider this: $3.7 million was invested by the city to make sure its re-entry into the lockup business succeeds.

Though it is light on amenities, police officials say the focus was on safety, to ensure that the thousands of temporary guests annually are treated humanely as they await arraignments in courtrooms high above the basement jail.

Once arraigned, prisoners are either released or shipped across the street to the Erie County Holding Center on the first block of Delaware Avenue.

Run by the county Sheriff's Office, the Holding Center nine years ago took over city cellblock duties that had been situated at Police Headquarters. It was an experiment in regionalism that was doomed from the start, authorities say in looking back at an effort that was intended to save taxpayers' money.

The Holding Center, police officials said, is required to operate under stricter state correctional guidelines than a temporary municipal cellblock. Periodic head counts and other requirements at the center often resulted in long delays as police officers sat in patrol cars with their charges for hours.

"On a busy night, our officers could be out of service six hours waiting in line, 12 cars deep, and that drove up overtime costs and diminished service to citizens," Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said. "This new cellblock is state of the art, and our officers will get back on the road a lot quicker."

Adjacent to the cellblock is the Police Department's newly relocated Central Booking offices, where report technicians assist officers in putting together arrest paperwork. The proximity of the two operations, Derenda said, also will save time.

Central Booking had operated on the first floor of Buffalo Police Headquarters at Franklin and Church streets, and that required officers, once they had dropped off prisoners at the Holding Center, to then stop by headquarters and complete the paperwork.

It wasn't always like that.

Before the regionalism effort, those arrested in the city were taken to the fourth-floor city cellblock at headquarters, and then it was downstairs to Central Booking.

But unlike the old city cellblock, which now serves as an atticlike storage facility, the new cellblock, police said, is more efficient because of its design.

"The old cellblock was lineal. This is podlike, with a workstation in the center so prisoners can be easily observed by cellblock attendants," Capt. Mark Markowski said.

The workstation includes computer screens that provide views of the interior of the eight cells, which can hold one or two detainees, and the four holding pens, each designed to accommodate up to 10 prisoners.

There is also a cell designed for physically disabled prisoners.

Each unit is furnished with a stainless steel fixture with a sink, toilet and water fountain. For the sake of privacy, the ceiling surveillance camera blurs out a section of the fixture.

The cellblock only accommodates men. Female prisoners will continue to be taken to the Holding Center, a practice that has been in place for decades.

And what about the cellblock staff?

Fifteen newly hired attendants, who will each earn about $22,000 a year, have been receiving instruction for the last six weeks from police training academy Officers Vickie Smith and Mary Plewinski.

"The attendants are going to see every facet of society in here, from the uncooperative, suicidal to the intoxicated," Inspector Joseph Strano said. "That's why we've been running scenarios for all kinds of circumstances."

Attendants say they are ready.

"Most of the prisoners will be compliant. They know what's going on. A lot have been in trouble before," said attendant Darnell Hardy, a 48-year-old military veteran who has also worked for the state prison system.

Nick Bautz, 23, says his job helps get his foot in the door with law enforcement.

"This is a place to learn. I hope to become a police officer some day," he said.

And Lakisha Champion, 30, says she is ready for whatever prisoners dish out.

"It may have its challenging moments, but we're getting the right training, and there shouldn't be anything we can't handle," Champion said.

Chow for the prisoners, Makowski said, will be provided through the city's Board of Education.

Omelettes? Fish fries?

Forget about it.

"We're talking sandwiches, a doughnut, juice boxes. This is very short term. Prisoners are only here until we can get them arraigned. There's morning and afternoon court Monday to Friday and one session on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays," he said.

So while the city may not earn any awards for innkeeping, police say prisoners will be watched over and handled with care.

email: lmichel@buffnews.com