Sheriff Timothy B. Howard’s jail management team has assured a state watchdog agency that it will report serious jail incidents and report them accurately.
The Erie County officials were responding to the state Commission of Correction’s assertion that they have failed to report serious matters, including inmate suicide attempts, as required.
The Buffalo News reported in April that the acts of five inmates at the Erie County Correctional Facility, documented over a three-year period, had met the state’s definition for attempted suicide. The Commission of Correction agreed. But county prison officials had deemed the acts “individual inmate disturbances,” a category that does not require automatic notification to Albany.
The commission, in two “directives” sent to Howard the week of May 16, gave him until Tuesday to indicate how he would comply with the reporting standards that jail officials around the state must meet. The commission threatened a lawsuit if Howard missed the deadline.
Late Monday, Howard’s Jail Management Division superintendent, Thomas Diina, sent a two-page letter of assurance to the Commission of Correction’s chairman, Thomas Beilein, a former Niagara County sheriff.
Diina maintained that the incidents the Commission of Correction called into question were correctly documented and reported based on a reasonable interpretation of the rules, among other things. But Diina said “it is in no one’s best interest to prolong a dialogue on the directives.”
He told Beilein that, with attempted suicides, his command level staff have been briefed on the commission's interpretation of the terms "life-threatening injury" and "life-threatening situation" and advised that the “intent of an inmate should not factor into how an incident is categorized.”
The commission defines a suicide attempt as an attempt to “terminate one’s own life by inflicting life-threatening injury upon one’s self,” or by placing one’s self in a “life-threatening situation” by hanging, setting one’s self on fire, ingesting poisons, inflicting cuts, etc. With the definition, the commission does not want jail officials to independently determine or cast doubt on whether the inmate truly wanted to die.
But in the cases found by The News, all of which involved a device used to restrict an airway, officials at the Correctional Facility in Alden nonetheless doubted the inmates wanted to kill themselves and instead documented their acts as inmate disturbances. In April, Diina backed up the decisions by saying the prisoners were more likely seeking preferential treatment so they could get out of the “keeplock” units that are considered a jail within a jail because inmates are kept in their cells for 23 hours a day.
Just one of the attempts was reported to the state agency – as an inmate disturbance – because an officer’s finger was cut when a noose was sliced off, and his wound required treatment.
Diina also wrote that his command level staff are reviewing all incidents electronically within 24 hours to "ensure accuracy, sufficiency of information, and compliance with the Reportable Incident Guidelines." Those measures could help avoid a repeat of an incident, also revealed by The News, in which staff at the Correctional Facility wrongly reported a serious case of violence by one inmate against another.
The staff reported to Albany that the inmate, Carl M. Miller, was moved to a hospital because he had injured himself in an accidental fall. In fact, he had been beaten by another inmate. The sheriff’s own detectives charged an attacker within hours of the attack, in late September. But the prison’s officers, who had not acted on the victim’s pleas for protection, let the false report stand.
The Sheriff's Office acknowledged the error but said it acted on the best information immediately available. The mistake was made in not correcting the information when the truth was known, a sheriff's spokesman told The News for an article in November.
In its directives, the commission had also faulted the Erie County Holding Center in downtown Buffalo for not reporting that an inmate was wrongly released on bail in May because, it was discovered later, a stolen credit card was used in the transaction.
Diina, as he did when the matter was brought to light weeks ago, told the Commission of Correction in his letter that the fault resides with a company serving as a bail guarantor for the Erie County jail and other jails. He said Erie County has suspended bail payments from the company until "sufficient safeguards and procedures are in place on their end."
Soon after Howard and his team received the commission's directives a few weeks ago, Diina said he and the sheriff wanted to meet with Beilein to seek clarification of some of the rules involved. Diina never did meet with Beilein, according to Commission of Correction spokeswoman Janine Kava. But he did meet in Albany with the agency’s staff on May 26 to seek the clarification he wanted.
"We considered this meeting to be very productive," Diina said in his letter, adding that, "all parties came away with a clear understanding of each entity's position on the matters at hand, as well as a clear understanding of a mutually agreeable path forward."
Kava said the commission and its staff wanted to review Diina's letter before commenting on whether it meets the expectations they set down in their directives.