The state's Commission of Correction this week formally faulted Erie County jail officials for failing to report serious incidents -- suicide attempts, inmate violence and the "erroneous release" of a defendant -- and said it expected improvement.
The commission delivered the message in two "directives" to Sheriff Timothy B. Howard, laying the groundwork for a lawsuit if his staff does not heed the jail watchdog's standards.
One directive tells Howard that personnel at the county Correctional Facility in Alden failed to report suicide attempts on four occasions dating to 2013, and did not report the violent attack of an inmate against another inmate in September.
The second directive said the Holding Center in Buffalo failed to report the mistaken release of an inmate on April 12.
In that incident, a stolen credit card was used with the bail company -- a fact that came to jailers' attention only the next day. While Howard's employees did not mistakenly release a violent felon or an inmate ineligible for bail, as done in past years, the commission asserts the unusual incident should have led to a report to its staff in Albany.
The commission told Howard and County Attorney Michael Siragusa to indicate by June 6 how they will ensure the reporting of serious incidents in the future. The remedy could be as simple as notifying the county personnel of the Commission of Correction's rules, insisting they be met, and then following up, said an agency spokeswoman.
The agency will work with the county if the plan falls short, spokeswoman Janine Kava added. But the directives also tell Howard that his non-compliance could lead to a lawsuit asking a judge to intervene.
The superintendent of Howard's Jail Management Division, Thomas Diina, told The Buffalo News that he and the sheriff asked weeks ago to meet with the commission's chairman to discuss their differing interpretations of the agency's rules on reporting unusual incidents. The chairman, former Niagara County Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein, has not responded, Diina said.
"If the COC accepts our meeting request before the June 6 deadline and clarifications are offered, the Sheriff’s Office plans to comply with any directive," Diina said. "However, without a meeting to clarify outstanding issues and receipt of any legal opinions, the Sheriff’s Office will be unable to implement any necessary changes."
As for the release of the Holding Center inmate, Diina said the bail company transmitted a form to the jail confirming the transaction. Only then was the inmate freed.
The next day, the county learned a stolen credit card had been used, Diina said. The matter has since been worked out with all parties. But the county no longer accepts the company's bail payments and discussed the problem with the Commission of Correction, Diina said.
The commission issued the directives just weeks after The Buffalo News revealed Erie County's occasional practice to label inmate suicide attempts as "individual inmate disturbances," a category that does not trigger automatic notification to the state agency.
In one case from 2013, a Correctional Facility inmate was found on the floor of his cell, not breathing, with pieces of a bedsheet knotted around his neck. The other end had apparently broken free from a cell fixture. Corrections officers revived him, and he soon vowed to kill himself again because he learned in court that day he might never see his children again.
Despite the circumstances, prison officials labeled the event an inmate disturbance.
The Commission of Correction expects jailers around the state to send a report to Albany whenever an inmate "attempts to terminate one's own life," or simply places one's self "in a life-threatening situation" by hanging or in other ways.
To keep data uniform through the breadth of jails the agency monitors, the commission does not want officials to determine whether an inmate truly wanted to die before reporting a suicide attempt.
The News in April described four occasions in which a total of five inmates met the state's definition for attempted suicide. Yet Erie County called the events individual inmate disturbances.
The Correctional Facility reported only one of the events to Albany -- because a corrections officer was treated for a finger wound inflicted when a noose was sliced off.
Diina told The News in April that his supervisors suspected the inmates were trying to manipulate officers into granting them better housing assignments, away from the "keep-lock" units where they are inside cells for 23 hours a day. “We look at the totality of the situation whenever we are assessing these incidents,” Diina said at that time, “and that’s what we train our supervisors to do.”
Almost 900 reports on unusual incidents went from his facilities to Albany since 2013 – proof, he said, that his personnel willingly notify the commission on many matters. But he does not want his staff to "over-report," he added.
Diina on Friday maintained the events did not need to be reported as suicide attempts and said officials with the county departments of health and mental health agreed.
In another incident cited by the Commission of Correction, Correctional Facility staff told the state agency in September that inmate Carl M. Miller lay in a coma in a hospital because he had fallen accidentally. Another inmate beat Miller, who had asked officers for protection. Detectives charged the attacker within hours. But the Correctional Facility never changed its report to Albany. The News wrote about that case in November.
Just four directives went out in all of 2016, the agency's spokeswoman said. It has sent directives to Erie County before, most notably in 2009, during a period of intense state and federal scrutiny of the county jail system, particularly the Holding Center.
The commission at the time alleged Howard was denying basic items of personal hygiene, such as soap, tampons and showers, to defendants awaiting arraignment. The jail was under strain as it also served as the Buffalo police lock-up under a cost-sharing arrangement with the city.