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Poloncarz, Collins air jail views

Editor's note: Over the next two weeks, The Buffalo News will outline the differing views of the two major candidates for Erie County executive on the big issues facing the county.

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Erie County's two jails have been plagued by controversy.

Lawsuits. Suicides. Overtime.

Whoever occupies the 16th floor of the Rath County Office Building for the next four years will help shape budgets and policy that will affect the future of the Holding Center in Buffalo and the Correctional Facility in Alden.

The two candidates running in November differ on how to make them better.

Democrat Mark C. Poloncarz, the county comptroller, wants the county to hire more sheriff's deputies to cut down on overtime that had one employee working 16 hours a day for six straight days.

Republican incumbent Chris Collins defends the shape of the jails and said they've been "transformed" during his first term in office. But those same four years have been overshadowed by a federal Department of Justice lawsuit over their condition. The lawsuit was settled this summer.

Collins plans to rebuild the intake area of the Holding Center during the next six months in what he called a "massive redo" of the facility that he hopes will help address detoxing inmates.

The candidates' views:

>Mark C. Poloncarz

The Democratic challenger this month called the issue of Erie County's Holding Center "one of the major challenges facing the next county executive."

Poloncarz said that he wouldn't be able to do much the Holding Center or the county's jail in Alden in his first year in office, if he were elected.

That's because budgets for the institutions would already largely be in place, he said.

However, Poloncarz said he would plan on focusing on both the physical plant of the Holding Center complex and its staffing levels.

"We do know that there are serious deficiencies with the physical plant," he said. "Overcrowding there is one of our major problems."

Poloncarz said that he would ask parties involved in Holding Center oversight to collaborate on an analysis of what the best solution would be.

"I don't think we need to replace the whole Holding Center," he said. "But that's part of our problem: We've never done any kind of analysis to find out what a new building would cost. That needs to be done."

In addition, Poloncarz said, the Holding Center is "short-staffed" and needs more deputies to handle the workload.

"I don't believe we should completely eliminate overtime -- we'd have to hire hundreds of deputies to do that -- but we should reduce the costs of it," he said. "That's something I would be looking forward to doing in future budgets."

>Chris Collins

Collins has a plan to turn an unusued gym at the Holding Center into an intake area where inmates would get examined as they enter the jail, medical records would be nearby, and those coming off drugs could be housed.

"The money's there, and it will be done in six months, and it will be transformational," Collins said.

Construction on the new intake area is expected to be completed about the same time the City of Buffalo is scheduled to pull its unarraigned inmates from the facility after Collins ended an agreement to house them.

The Holding Center's new intake center also will include an open area with beds for detoxing inmates. The idea is to reduce the chance that one of those inmates would harm themselves.

Potentially suicidal inmates will continue to be placed on constant observation.

"It's totally ridiculous to talk about hiring new guards when you're getting rid of 24,000 unarraigned prisoners and totally redoing the reception area and booking area," Collins said. "And by taking this nice big space, what we're going to have is truly the most modern, up-to-date processing center."

Overtime hours at the jail in recent years has been driven by staffing mandated by the State Commission of Correction.

The plan to remake the intake area -- which the Collins administration and the Sheriff's Office have been working on for months -- is included in a "stipulated order of dismissal" struck between the county and the Department of Justice in August. The agreement ended put an end to a federal lawsuit that sought improvements to the two facilities.

Unlike Poloncarz, Collins sees no point in conducting an analysis to determine the cost of replacing the Holding Center -- a price tag he estimates would be more than $100 million.

"There's nothing wrong with our Holding Center from a physical plant standpoint, now that we've got a new roof in there," Collins said. "There would be absolutely no reason to replace that jail, none whatsoever."

djgee@buffnews.com and cvogel@buffnews.com