Four months after being notified that it had been misled about a serious attack inside the Erie County Correctional Facility, the state watchdog will arrive.
Back in November, the state Commission of Correction vowed to investigate after learning from The Buffalo News that an inmate had attacked another inmate.
Sheriff Timothy B. Howard’s officials had wrongly told the commission, which watches over local jails, that an inmate clinging to life in a Buffalo hospital suffered his grave injuries in an accident.
In fact, inmate Carl M. Miller’s skull was fractured Sept. 30 by another inmate, even after Miller explained to corrections officers that a specific enemy was out to get him. Miller had asked for a new cellblock, but the transfer didn’t come in time.
Detectives swiftly lodged charges against Miller’s adversary. But because of Erie County’s false report, commission officials in Albany believed for weeks that Miller was hurt in a mishap.
When The News revealed the falsehood, a commission spokeswoman said the staff in Albany, if told the truth, would have pressed Howard’s aides with questions about their performance. She said the agency opened an inquiry into the assault and “how it was reported.”
Its investigators are scheduled to arrive this week at the Correctional Facility to quiz key personnel about what happened.
Spokeswoman Janine Kava explained that before investigating incidents, the commission typically lets jail officials around the state conduct an internal review and provide their findings to the staff in Albany. With about 1,000 cases of inmate-on-inmate violence reported each year across New York’s county jails and its more than 400 police lock-ups, the commission’s staff in Albany relies on internal reviews for information.
Even though Erie County misled the commission, the state staff still waited for Erie County’s review before determining the next step, Kava said. But the state aides who read the report realized they needed more information.
On Feb. 24, they set up dates when two experienced senior investigators — from a staff of 14 who handle non-death inquiries — could conduct interviews at the jail in Alden. The dates were set for Monday and Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Erie County has been getting ready. A county lawyer recently met with the prison staff involved in the Miller episode to prepare them for the interviews, an employee there told The News.
Eighteen people, mostly lawyers and people involved in prisoners’ rights, signed a letter last year to State Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo. They asked if the Legislature would take a closer look at the state’s jail watchdog because The Buffalo News was tipping it off to serious matters that might not have come to light otherwise.
“By investigating these horrific incidents, The Buffalo News did the citizens of Erie County a favor," the letter said. “But we should not have to rely on the private sector to do the work of a government agency.”
The commission in 2012 learned of the death of Holding Center inmate Richard A. Metcalf Jr. after The News asked the Albany officials why a jail detainee lay gravely injured in a local hospital. Howard’s jail staff was asserting that it did not have to report the matter to the Commission of Correction, in part because jail personnel had released the near-dead Metcalf from custody, making him no longer an inmate.
When Erie jail officials acknowledged Metcalf’s death, they said he died of a heart attack, as the Erie County medical examiner at the time eventually determined. The jail officials, however, did not mention the restraints placed on Metcalf to prevent him from spitting blood.
The Commission of Correction’s Medical Review Board later concluded Metcalf was suffocated when jail deputies tightly knotted a spit mask around his neck, covered his head with a pillowcase, placed him face down on an ambulance stretcher and blocked ambulance medics from examining him for several crucial minutes. In a report, the commission said Metcalf died at the hands of Howard’s jail deputies and recommended a new criminal investigation.
Nan Haynes is a local lawyer and University at Buffalo Law School professor who drafted the letter to the state assemblyman. To Haynes, the four-month delay in the Carl Miller inquiry shows a lack of seriousness.
“They have a duty to oversee how the jails in Erie County are run," she said of the commission’s staff. “They were put on notice that jail management in Erie County lied about the manner in which an inmate was severely injured — in order to avoid being investigated by the Commission of Correction. That should raise a red flag to the COC that this needs investigating immediately."
The sheriff’s team has agreed that its initial state-mandated report about Miller was wrong but says it presented the best information immediately available.
Miller, as he lay injured, told officers that he recently took five painkillers, sheriff’s spokesman Scott Zylka told The News in November. While none of the reports by the sheriff’s criminal detectives mention this, Zylka said the corrections officers theorized Miller collapsed from an overdose and hit his head. This assumption formed the basis for the report to Albany.
The staff’s error was in failing to correct the report when the truth became known, Zylka said.
Some of the corrections officers working on “Echo Block,” where Miller was confined, knew that he felt threatened.
Miller was 27 at the time and being held on charges of grand larceny and driving without a license. He was slightly built and, according to his criminal lawyer, had no acts of violence.
In Echo Block, Miller spotted an inmate with whom he had a bad history. A lawyer readying a lawsuit against the county said that Miller asked his mother, when she visited him in the prison, to talk to someone about getting him moved to another cellblock where he would be safer. She did so.
Miller, too, tried to set wheels in motion for a transfer. As he waited for the move over the next 20 hours, he stayed in his cell and away from a common area where he might encounter his enemy. But on Sept. 30, he eventually drifted out of his cell to pick up a dinner tray.
With the cellblock’s officer distracted by another matter, Miller suffered an attack that left him in a heap on the floor.
Detectives soon charged James T. Thomas of Buffalo, who was 47 at the time and being held on a burglary charge.
“I knocked the [expletive] out of him,” Thomas said, according to a Sheriff’s Office report.
With Miller’s skull fractured and his brain swelling, doctors at Erie County Medical Center worked to relieve the pressure and placed him in a medically induced coma for days. He eventually recovered.
Miller was finally moved to another cellblock, at least on paper.
A prison employee told The News that the paperwork was completed as Miller awaited the ambulance that rushed him to ECMC.