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At 5 p.m. Friday, John J. Dray became a free man.

Like many before him, Dray walked out of the Erie County Holding Center with the words "time served" ringing in his ears.

The difference with Dray is that, when he left, it was for the last time as the jail's top administrator.

He began his 29-year stretch starting on the ground floor as a deputy and worked his way up to superintendent of the seven-story Delaware Avenue jail, driven, he said, by the ideal of fairness for all.

"The thing that made me come to work every day and leave the cellblocks to become a supervisor was to make sure fair play was present on both sides, with the inmates and the deputies."

Dray's comment, made during an interview in front of the facility, invited the obvious question: Was fair play previously absent?

"Jail was different 30 years ago. There certainly are more rights on both sides now. I don't think jail has to be a violent place. Inmates shouldn't leave scarred.

"And if deputies work in a lousy place, they go home with a bad attitude and it scars their families," said Dray, who quickly added: "I'm proud of being the superintendent and being recognized as one of the best facilities in the state."

And while Dray, 53, is certain some aspects of county-run incarceration have improved under his watch, he is deeply concerned about the changing inmate population in recent years.

"Before, the average age of an inmate was late 20s. Now it's high teens, early 20s. They're younger and more violent. They are people without hope who act out their hopelessness because they figure they have nothing to lose."

Standing where hundreds of people line up each week to visit loved ones, Dray often paused to acknowledge the respect shown him by workers entering and leaving the jail.

"I'm the only guy to go through the ranks and become superintendent. I spent my life here. There isn't a job I haven't done. I know what's going on. . . .

"You have a population of people who don't want to be here. Today, there are 874 inmates, and the jail is designed to hold 650."

Deputy Anastacio Vazquez, who staffs the reception desk at the center, called Dray a people person.

"He understands all the problems with the employees and the inmates. He's sensitive. He came from the ground troops. He's one of us," he said.

Kind words also flow from those who have been at odds with Dray, who lives in the City of Tonawanda.

"I think he is conscientious and moral. He's done the best he could with the resources available to him," said Nan L. Haynes, one of three lawyers who on behalf of inmates sued the county because of jail overcrowding.

Awards and certificates on the wall of Dray's office attest to his ability.

In 1992, he was named "Correctional Administrator of the Year" in the "Big Jail" category by the American Jail Association. He also is a state-certified police instructor, firefighter and fire investigator.

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