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Sheriff parries jail suit with lockup idea Sees a new, smaller county facility as a way to avoid state's standards

Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard has responded to the state lawsuit filed against him Tuesday by saying he will not be bullied into building a new $250 million jail because a state agency alleges that his crowded Holding Center treats inmates badly.

Behind the scenes, Howard and County Executive Chris Collins are discussing a new multimillion-dollar downtown lockup -- a quasi-jail that would take on the role the Holding Center plays in holding defendants awaiting arraignment and let Howard avoid a strict set of rules.

Inside a lockup, the sheriff need not give bedding, showers, toothbrushes and similar items to inmates who have not yet seen a judge. But the Holding Center is a jail under state law and must meet higher standards in the care of inmates.

The State Commission of Correction lawsuit was fueled largely by the Holding Center's failure to consistently provide items of personal hygiene to people detained there for several hours or in some cases days as they await their first court appearance.

Collins says there is a "very high probability" that Erie County will build a lockup with ancillary uses to take pressure off the Holding Center, after making room by razing the aging county-owned building at 134 W. Eagle St.

The building, which Collins calls "a complete dump," lies in the Holding Center's shadow and houses the county Board of Elections and some sheriff's offices.

"One of the things we are thinking of is we probably need a separate lockup," Collins said this week. "The issues for a lockup and the standards of care versus a holding center are dramatically different."

What will the project cost? Collins said he will allocate$3 million in demolition costs in the 2010 budget he will soon propose. But he did not have a firm figure for the cost of a new building because a study is not yet complete and final decisions are pending.

Meanwhile, an aide who helps county departments consolidate their office space has talked with the Elections Board about moving to rented quarters in the suburbs, said Democratic Elections Commissioner Dennis E. Ward, who would rather the board remain downtown.

New York's lockups, usually found in police stations, are still regulated by the State Commission of Correction. But the rules are softer than those governing jails, on the belief that lockups detain people for only a few hours.

With bedding, for example, lockups are to provide blankets, "depending on such circumstances as the condition of the prisoner, and the temperature in the detention area." They need not issue blankets to all.

Collins and Howard want to undo the 2003 decision to move the Buffalo Police Department lockup into the Holding Center -- a stab at government consolidation that has few defenders today. Howard has long contended that, just like police lockups, his jail should not have to offer items of personal hygiene to defendants awaiting arraignment.

"If the Sheriff's Office is going to continue to do the lockup duties for Buffalo, we want to be given the right facilities to do that," Howard said, explaining his hope for a new facility.

Right now, the defendants linger in crowded pens, collectively dubbed the "bullpen." A dozen or more people will share a combined toilet and sink. There is a bench but no beds, so people sprawl out on the floor. Occasionally they get bedding, but not often enough, the state inspectors said.

The commission lets the sheriff hold inmates in such pens for no more than four hours before moving them to a cell. State inspectors, however, said they found people forced to stay in the pen 16, 18 or 20 hours. In one episode reported in The Buffalo News, Linda C. Arthur of Evans described how she was held for most of a December weekend and denied her daily cancer medicine, water and toilet paper. She was arrested over an unpaid parking ticket.

In a breakthrough, the Commission of Correction told Howard this summer that the agency will apply lockup standards to a free-standing building holding prearraigned defendants only.

Are Howard and Collins merely evading the state's rules for jails rather than addressing them?

"The problems with those conditions are well-documented . . . putting too many people in one small area with one toilet, no shower, no bed and no personal hygiene material," said Nan L. Haynes, a University at Buffalo law professor who was on a team of lawyers who successfully sued the jail over its crowding in the 1990s.

Haynes once said that what goes on in the Holding Center should be a source of shame for everyone in Erie County.

"If building a new facility for those prearraigned detaines will remedy the situation, then it will be a good thing," she continued. "But if they are going to face the same conditions in a new building, it sounds like a waste of money."

Said Howard: "Probably the new facility would be designed so that the holding pens would be made smaller, so that there [are fewer] people waiting to use the same toilet. And that's about the only real issue I see here. Maybe they would have more benches. Smaller pens. More holding cells, with more of the toilet/sink amenities."

On the advice of the county attorney, Howard and Collins have barred the U.S. Justice Department from inspecting the Holding Center and Correctional Facility in Alden as part of its separate probe into constitutional violations. Collins and Howard worry that the Justice Department will demand expensive and unwarranted improvements that burden the taxpayer.

However, the county has not yet compared the costs to meet all of the jail standards at the Holding Center with the cost of constructing a lockup.

Collins said Buffalo will contribute financially as part of the fee it pays the county for a lockup. He has told the city that he intends to renegotiate the fee, which the county comptroller's office found falls millions of dollars short of the actual costs.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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