Four Erie County citizens are asking a judge to force Sheriff Timothy B. Howard to follow state rules and classify inmate suicide attempts as just that, suicide attempts - not as "individual inmate disturbances."
If a judge agrees to do so, it would lay the groundwork for Howard to be held in contempt should his jail officials intentionally mislabel serious incidents and not report them to state officials.
The court matter, filed Tuesday, is linked to a chain of events extending back several months.
In May, the state agency that monitors local jails threatened to sue Howard after learning his officials were placing suicide attempts under the less serious category of individual inmate disturbances, which did not trigger an automatic report to Albany.
Howard's team also labeled the violent attack of one inmate against another as an accident and failed to officially report the mistaken release of a defendant who posted bail with a stolen credit card, the state Commission of Correction said.
But soon after the stage agency threatened to sue the sheriff, the superintendent of his Jail Management Division, Thomas Diina, assured state officials in a letter that Erie County would change course and follow their rules.
With Diina saying that he and Howard intended to address the agency's concerns, the commission in June decided not to sue but to instead monitor Erie County's performance.
Weeks later, however, Howard contradicted his jail superintendent. The sheriff publicly said he did not want to follow the new practice -- at least as far as suicide attempts are concerned.
In an interview with The Buffalo News posted on Aug. 23, Howard said there were good reasons to call an apparent suicide attempt by some other name, such as a "manipulative gesture."
He offered the hypothetical scenario of a 16-year-old arrested for driving while intoxicated and whose parents refuse to post bail. In that case, a suicidal act may simply be an attempt to gain attention, Howard said. He argued against classifying the incident as a suicide attempt and reporting it to Albany.
"That could mean a suicidal label for life,” Howard reasoned in August. “I’m not willing to label that individual suicidal when medical and mental health professionals are not saying that.”
His stance was exactly what the Commission of Correction had sought to avoid. The agency wants jailers around the state to generate a standard report whenever an inmate tries to terminate his or her own life or "places one's self in a life-threatening situation" by ingesting poisons, inflicting lacerations or hanging one's self. The commission does not want jailers to prove the inmate truly wanted to die before labeling their act as a suicide attempt.
But that's what Erie County jail officials had been doing. In one example from 2013, the officials concluded that an inmate who tried to hang himself -- and was found unconscious and not breathing -- did not want to end his life. Jail officials believed the inmate, who was revived with CPR, was staging his act so he could get out of a disciplinary housing unit.
Howard's comments did not faze the Commission of Correction. The agency continues to follow the plan put in place after Diina's letter.
"The commission has been monitoring the county’s facilities for compliance through on-site assessments and other means," spokeswoman Janine Kava said. "If any further violations are uncovered through this ongoing monitoring, the commission will review its options, including applying to the court for judicial enforcement, to compel compliance."
But the clash between the sheriff's comments and Diina's assurances to Albany confused four former members of Erie County's Community Corrections Advisory Board. The panel was formed by the County Legislature in 2010 as a community response to the jail system's failure -- as alleged by the U.S. Justice Department -- to meet minimum standards in supervising and protecting inmates and in preventing suicides. The Advisory Board disbanded in 2014 after Republican lawmakers loyal to the Republican sheriff took control of the Legislature and failed to reappoint key board members.
While the Advisory Board disbanded, at least four members remained interested in jail-related matters, and they signed the petition against Howard. They are: the Rev. Eugene L. Pierce, a former official at the Erie County Correctional Facility; Nan L. Haynes, a retired University at Buffalo Law School professor who has sued the county on behalf of inmates; Karima Amin, a central player in local prisoners' rights groups; and Charles J. Culhane of the Western New York Peace Center's Prisoners' Action Committee.
Amid the confusion created by Howard's interview, they had attorney Anna Marie Richmond of Buffalo send a letter to the sheriff explaining the Commission of Correction's rules and addressing their concerns. When Howard did not respond, they filed court papers naming the sheriff as the only respondent. The four will argue that as Erie County citizens and former members of the advisory board, they have standing to file the court case.
They want a State Supreme Court judge to order Howard to show he has measures in place to ensure serious incidents are reported correctly, and to order Howard and his staff to then report incidents correctly. It's the same sort of action the Commission of Correction would have initiated if Howard's team had not vowed to follow the state rules. If a court orders the sheriff to follow the rules and he does not, the four could ask that he be held in contempt and penalized.
The Commission of Correction did not comment on the lawsuit. Similarly, Howard would not comment because he does not comment on pending litigation, an aide said.