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Fix Erie County jail conditions Holding Center is tough, but making it a place lacking human dignity is wrong

The Erie County Holding Center's wretched conditions stem from two problems: money and expectations.

You don't have to believe that every inmate in a jail is always truthful to hear the ring of credibility in the complaints cited in a story Sunday by News reporter Lou Michel. When inmates willing to be quoted by name cite such specific affronts as having to use slices of bread as toilet paper, it's likely true.

Under financial pressure from the county's budget crisis, employees of the Holding Center face a difficult task too; many of them must cringe at the conditions they work in. At the same time, jail officials are undoubtedly right that some inmates intentionally plug toilets and help degrade facilities.
Nonetheless, the appalling, unhealthy and unsafe conditions described in the story are in no way defensible. And Sheriff Timothy B. Howard's cheap response -- basically, if you can't do the time, don't do the crime -- doesn't befit a man of his experience and professionalism. Providing toilet paper does not qualify as coddling.
Beyond that, most inmates of the Holding Center are accused of crimes, not convicted of them. And even assuming that most are probably guilty of some offense, the conditions remain deplorable. The Holding Center is not meant to deprive the accused of basics like toilet paper, sanitary napkins, important medical care and the ability to clean a colostomy bag. What are we running here? You can be "tough on crime" while maintaining human dignity.

Part of the solution is in resolving the county's financial crisis, which is not helped by heavy overtime bills at the Holding Center, as this paper has documented over the years. But another part of the solution -- required of the legal system in general -- could be in reforms suggested in a report by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. Crowded conditions can be relieved by using appearance tickets for low-risk crimes, GPS monitoring and other strategies. The county could also increase revenue by demanding that state and federal governments pay the actual cost of their inmates housed in the Holding Center and the Alden Correctional Facility. Also worth considering is the proposal by County Executive Joel A. Giambra to charge inmates a housing fee and a co-payment for medical care.
Just as important, though, is for leaders of the Sheriff's Department and the county's jails to ensure that their employees understand the difference between supervising a difficult population and depriving people of even the considerations that pet-owners give their dogs. We can do better than this.

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