Moments before the Buffalo Anti Racism Coalition “town hall” meeting began Thursday evening, Canisius College adjunct professor Heron Simmonds-Price sat alone at a long table, eyeing untended placards and bottles of water.
There was a spot reserved for Buffalo mayor Byron W. Brown, U.S. Attorney William Hochul, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer.
“If any of you want some water, I think we may have a few extra,” Price said, laughing.
Although many of the event’s high-profile invitees didn’t turn out, around 100 people crammed into the Central Meeting Room of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library to participate in a discussion about the Erie County Holding Center and — specifically — the late India Cummings.
Cummings, who died in late February, brought heightened attention to the treatment of inmates at the Holding Center. Admitted into Buffalo General Hospital on Feb. 17, the 27-year-old woman wound up dead four days later, with broken ribs and blood clots in one of her legs.
Four panelists spoke about the intricacies of her case, including Price, prisoner rights activist Chuck Culhane, Erie County legislator Betty Jean Grant and Matt Albert, the attorney for the estate of India Cummings.
Albert began by describing what his research has yielded so far. He said on Feb. 1, when Cummings was arrested, she may have ingested something that made her act out. She was normally a quiet, God-fearing woman, he said, but had been louder, more impulsive, more violent.
She also suffered a broken arm as she was being put into handcuffs. She wasn’t taken to Erie County Medical Center until eight hours later, and after being treated, was told she would need to continue to be treated.
This is when Albert said officers chose to “willfully ignore” the information, putting her health at risk.
“Despite the fact that she was wasting away in plain sight, they never took her back to ECMC,” he said. “They never did anything to treat that broken arm, to treat the underlying symptoms or to see what was wrong.”
Speakers took the perceived injustices in her case and used them to paint a broader picture of prisoner mistreatment.
Simmonds-Price, who teaches courses in human rights at Canisius, described Cummings’ case as a byproduct of a criminal justice system that values the voices of officials more than those of average people. He said that’s why the people have to raise their voices.
“The political institutions are unable to act,” he said. “It’s on us. There’s no other institution to turn to.”
Grant wouldn’t comment on the particulars of Cummings’ case because of her position as a legislator, but she echoed the need for public action.
“It’s good to criticize,” she said. “It’s good to see what is wrong in today’s world.”