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Rod Watson: Lack of jail oversight puts Democrats in GOP corner

Rod Watson

Democrats ready to capitalize on the GOP’s health care debacle have the perfect opportunity to remind folks that government can work for people.

There’s just one problem: First you have to make sure government works – especially the government that you run.

In this bluest of states, the ongoing failures of both the Erie County Sheriff’s Office and the Cuomo administration to perform that most basic of bureaucratic tasks – protect life and health – at the Erie County Correctional Facility stands like a recurring advertisement for all that the GOP would like to do to government.

It’s no surprise that a Republican sheriff is not that interested in reforming jail operations. Republicans generally don’t like government – except when they’re running to be in it. They also don’t much care for criminal suspects, before or after the trial. Ignoring abuses of county inmates is a twofer for them.

If the public looks at the repeated outrages at the county's Correctional Facility and Holding Center and gets the idea that government is failing, and therefore we ought to shrink it in general, what Republican is going to complain? If I thought local GOP leaders were smart enough, I’d say it was all part of a plan.

But Democrats? They’re supposed to believe in the efficacy of government, in its ability to protect the weak and hold the powerful accountable.

State to finally look at county's false report on injured inmate

You don’t get much weaker than Carl Miller, the slightly built Correctional Facility inmate whose skull was fractured after jail staff failed to protect him from another inmate he’d warned was out to get him. The Sheriff’s Office then fed the Commission of Correction fake news by telling the agency that Miller was injured in an accident.

The commission is the state agency responsible for monitoring local jails – and Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard’s jails have long shown they need plenty of monitoring. A spate of suicides, escapes and assaults on inmates have drawn the scrutiny of the commission as well as the federal Department of Justice for years.

That history makes it all the more appalling that the commission would have to be told by The Buffalo News what actually happened to Miller, instead of being on top of incidents in a county that has repeatedly proven it is not to be trusted with inmate safety. And even after being told in November that Miller was brutally beaten, it took commission staffers until this week to come here to uncover the truth about both the assault and the cover-up.

Inmate assaults inmate: County jail officials call it an accident

Granted, the commission – whose three members are appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo – has a small staff and typically relies on local jailers to provide information about inmate-on-inmate assaults. But when a sheriff’s department has a history of obstruction, denial and incompetence like Erie’s, you would think the commission’s antenna would already be up. You would expect it to devote an extra measure of scrutiny to a known bad actor.

I didn’t expect much out of the Sheriff’s Office. It’s a GOP strategy to undermine government and then use its lousy performance as an excuse to gut the functions it doesn’t like. But I expected a lot more oversight out of the Cuomo administration.

If this is the best that government – a Democratic, "progressive" government – can do, Democrats are making the GOP’s argument for it. After all, who wants to pay more and more taxes for this?

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