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State to 'monitor compliance' as sheriff's jail team vows to do better

After faulting Erie County jail officials for labeling inmate suicide attempts as "disturbances," a state agency says it accepts the method Sheriff Timothy B. Howard's team will employ to ensure serious incidents are reported to Albany and reported accurately. But the agency says it will check in regularly to verify his jail echelon follows through.

The Commission of Correction, which polices New York's local jails, "will monitor compliance through on-site assessments and other means," spokeswoman Janine Kava said.

Since 2013, the acts of at least five Erie County Correctional Facility inmates met the state's definition for attempted suicide, which the commission considers a serious incident requiring a report to Albany. But Howard's jail team, assuming each inmate was only seeking better treatment, deemed the acts "individual inmate disturbances" and filed them away. The correctional facility reported only one of the cases, because an officer's finger was cut as a noose was sliced off, and he needed treatment.

In an example of a serious incident that Howard's aides reported wrongly, the correctional facility staff told the commission in September that an inmate was admitted to a local hospital because he had been hurt in a fall. In fact, the inmate was hospitalized, in grave condition, because another inmate beat him up – after prison officers failed to act on the victim's request for protection.

Suicide attempts recorded as 'individual inmate disturbances' at county jail

The commission also faulted Erie County for not reporting the mistaken release of an inmate at the Erie County Holding Center. A stolen credit card had been used in the bail transaction, but the company guaranteeing the inmate's bail did not notify the county jail until the next day. The commission said the incident should have been reported through official channels but was not.

The commission in May sent Howard two "directives" telling him the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden and Holding Center in downtown Buffalo must comply with agency rules on "reportable incidents." Threatening a lawsuit, the agency gave Howard a deadline to submit a plan detailing how he will  ensure his officials follow the state rules.

The superintendent of his Jail Management Division, Thomas Diina, met the deadline by sending Albany a letter stating he better understands a key provision in the state's definition of attempted suicide – whenever an inmate places one's self in a "life-threatening situation" – and told his command-level staff that the "intent of the inmate should not factor into how an incident is categorized." Watch commanders and first-line supervisors, who are to write the reports to Albany, would be briefed as well, he said.

Corrections panel orders Howard to report inmate suicide attempts

He also promised that command-level staff would review all incidents within 24 hours "to ensure accuracy, sufficiency of information, and compliance with the Reportable Incident Guidelines."

The Commission of Correction has come down on Howard and his jail team in past years, especially after the U.S. Justice Department in 2009 sued Erie County to force the sheriff to improve conditions in the facilities he oversees. As the lawsuit raged, a Justice Department consultant measured the Holding Center's suicide rate at five times the national average.

With Howard now in an election year, and critics again questioning his oversight, Diina ended his letter to the Commission of Correction on a positive note: "Sheriff Howard and I both feel that a speedy and mutually agreeable resolution to your concerns is what is best for all," he said. "We will continue to work with your staff to ensure that this takes place."

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