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Critics slam plan for new county lockup Regulations would allow lower standards for treatment of inmates at proposed facility

Some people critical of Erie County's ongoing jail problems have no love for a proposal to build a multimillion-dollar lockup that would free the sheriff from certain state rules governing inmate treatment at his troubled Holding Center.

Sheriff Timothy B. Howard and County Executive Chris Collins are discussing building a county lockup at 134 W. Eagle St. in downtown Buffalo after the county tears down the aging county-owned building that houses the county Board of Elections, which is there now.

Collins and Howard agree that with a lockup the sheriff would not be required to provide showers and personal hygiene items, or visitation and exercise, to defendants awaiting arraignment.

"What kind of sad, sick joke is this?" said Karima Amin, founder of the group Prisoners Are People Too, which has been rallying outside the Holding Center to protest the conditions inside.

"If Howard believes that this is a way to appease those of us who are seeking more humane treatment for incarcerated people, then he is definitely on the wrong track," she said. "It seems to me that he is simply proposing a smaller building that will offer more of what we already have.

"We already have a place for holding detainees. We already have a place that doesn't provide items for personal hygiene. We already have a place that provides limited bedding. We already have a place where people may be locked up for a period much longer than the commission says is acceptable."

The state Commission of Correction has repeatedly told Howard he must provide those items to defendants before their arraignment when detained too long in the Holding Center, which is a more heavily regulated "jail." The commission sued Howard in State Supreme Court last week to force him to meet those rules and others.

"We are not seeking to force the county to undertake costly reforms," said Commission Chairman Thomas A. Beilein, the former Niagara County sheriff. "We are asking only that Erie County manage its jails in a responsible manner."

Twelve county jails in the state, including Erie's, have special state clearance to hold defendants awaiting arraignment in the same facility as those who have been arraigned. All must provide the same set of rights to both types of inmates, according to the commission, which polices local jails and lockups.

However, with a more loosely regulated lockup, akin to lockups in local police departments, the sheriff is allowed to meet a lower standard on issues of personal hygiene and other jail guarantees for defendants awaiting their first court appearance.

"I'm very dismayed that we are trying to circumvent peoples' basic rights from being addressed, and that we are talking about spending millions of dollars to get around having a jail that will provide people with water, toilet paper and soap," said County Legislator Betty Jean Grant, D-Buffalo, who has held a public forum on jail conditions and plans other forums.

"We as a county are spending millions of dollars to make sure people are denied basic human rights. I think that is a terrible misuse of taxpayers money," she said.

"We don't need a new lockup, we just need the Holding Center to be managed competently," said Cheektowaga Police Capt. John Glascott, the Democratic candidate running for sheriff this year against the Republican Howard. "The taxpayers of Erie County keep footing the bill for the sheriff's mismanagement, and he just keeps asking for more money instead of meeting the bare minimum required for his job."

The county executive says it was "bad business" for the county in 2003 to start sending suspects recently arrested by Buffalo police into the Holding Center, as a paid service to the city so Buffalo police need not maintain their own lockup.

But with Erie County facing so many other expensive needs -- like road and bridge repairs -- is the construction of a new lockup the best decision for taxpayers?

"Before we spend one penny on a new facility the public deserves to know the exact nature of the inadequacies at the Holding Center, the alternatives available to remedy those deficiencies and bring the facility into compliance, and how much those alternatives cost," Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz said.

"The last thing the people of Erie County need is the waste of their hard-earned tax dollars to build a multimillion-dollar boondoggle to solve a problem that could have been fixed for much less."