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Editorial: Commission of Correction must hold Howard accountable for mismanagement of the jails

The disturbing practice of misreporting suicide attempts at the Erie County Correctional Facility should be addressed at the top. The New York State Commission of Correction must make Sheriff Timothy B. Howard and his staff answerable, in court, if necessary.

In a wide-ranging examination by The News’ Matthew Spina, several cases and suicide attempts have come to public light, though only after using the Freedom of Information Law. Were it not for that law, obvious suicide attempts would have been swept under the Sheriff’s Department rug.

What has once again become apparent is the problem at the top. Under Howard’s leadership, the department has demonstrated a persistent lack of integrity, including falsely reporting an inmate’s death that was later ruled a homicide.

Corrections officers are stymied, even when they want to do the right thing and report suicide attempts as such, instead of “disturbances.” The countywide law enforcement agency, which is supposed to be honest, contorts the system in a way that avoids consequences from state overseers.

To be sure, the job of corrections officers is not an easy one. Jail employees are sometimes subject to abuses that most residents would never want to endure. They require support, training and proper equipment.

But there is also a great need for accountability, which is demonstrably lacking in some of the accounts obtained by The News.

In the first description noted in Spina’s article from an incident that occurred on an afternoon in April 2013, an inmate at the Correctional Facility seemed determined to take his own life. The officers, in their report, called the incident a suicide attempt, as did a detective dispatched to the Alden prison and, indeed, the inmate as he recovered. Yet days later, the incident was labeled an “individual inmate disturbance.”

Reporting the suicide attempt in that manner let Howard’s officials off the hook; they didn’t have to report the incident to the state Commission of Correction in Albany. The agency only a few years earlier had made clear its “grave concern” about the number of inmate suicides in Erie County, “especially within the Holding Center in downtown Buffalo.”

And, as Spina wrote, 2013 was an election year for Howard, just as 2017 is again. It was his first re-election campaign following a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department. Ironically, the agreement involved an overhaul of the county’s suicide-prevention effort.

Despite the sheriff’s dismissive attitude toward the Justice Department for “coddling the inmates,” his Jail Management Division cooperates with two court-appointed monitors and the county system reported no suicides in either of the last couple of years. Now, county residents know why.

Howard’s officials have been labeling apparent suicide attempts as something else. When reported as incidents, as Spina discovered,  Sheriff’s Department employees investigate, then file away the reports – without ever sending word to state regulators.

To get to the facts, The News filed a Freedom of Information Law request, which produced records showing that five inmates since 2013 “engaged in acts that met the state’s definition of attempted suicide.” Tellingly, once having read the records, staff at the Commission of Correction agreed that each should have been labeled as a suicide attempt, as opposed to an inmate disturbance. Even then only one “disturbance” was reported because a corrections officer was injured.

Superintendent Thomas Diina was named to his job in 2012 to oversee both the prison and the Holding Center and their more than 700 employees. He said his jails have sent nearly 900 reports on unusual incidents to Albany since 2013. That, he said, is proof that his personnel willingly notify the commission on a variety of matters. But that assessment bears little relation to reality.

The public needs the Commission of Correction to hold the sheriff and his department accountable. It is empowered to take action to force Howard to do his job. Whatever it takes, that is what it must do.

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