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County inmate committed suicide after upsetting phone call, source says

An inmate at the Erie County Correctional Facility was crying as he ended a telephone conversation Wednesday morning. He went into the shower area of his housing unit and hanged himself, a well-placed prison source said.

A guard found the inmate and cut him down, but efforts to revive him using CPR were not successful, the prison source said.

"This was a clear-cut case of a successful suicide, which is very unfortunate," a spokesman for Sheriff Timothy B. Howard later told reporters.

Without identifying the inmate, spokesman Scott Zylka said he was from Hamburg and being held on drug-related charges.

It was the first suicide inside an Erie County jail in more than two years, but the death threatened to rekindle long-simmering criticisms of Howard's oversight of the Correctional Facility in Alden and the Holding Center in downtown Buffalo.

With Howard seeking re-election, critics have called attention to the 26 inmates who have died since he became sheriff in 2005. Those inmates died from a range of reasons. Some were suicides; some were natural causes; at least one was homicide, that of Holding Center inmate Richard A. Metcalf Jr. in November 2012; and in one, that of India Cummings, in February 2016, the cause and manner could not be determined.

"This news is awful," said Sarah Buckley, speaking for Showing Up for Racial Justice, a group that has sent protesters to Howard's campaign fundraisers. "It is also part of a pattern of neglect, abuse and death at Erie County jails under Sheriff Howard. He is accountable for what happens under his watch, and for 12 years he has failed to change the system. It is up to us as Erie County residents to ensure that elected officials that have failed us are voted from office."

Zylka, however, said the death was only the second successful suicide in the county facilities since 2014, and that Howard's Jail Management Division has worked steadily to improve its suicide-prevention methods and better train the staff to recognize inmates who might be at risk.

"This is sad, because we do offer a lot of help to the inmates," Zylka said. "However sometimes an individual is not reaching out to us."

Years ago, Howard balked at calls to improve the suicide-prevention effort in the county facilities. He fought the U.S. Justice Department when it sued him and a roster of other Erie County officials in 2009 to modernize the suicide-prevention effort and install more humane conditions in the two facilities.

A federal government consultant at the time measured the Holding Center's suicide rate at five times the national average. Still, the sheriff and then-County Executive Chris Collins criticized the Justice Department lawyers and fought the lawsuit. But as Collins faced re-election in 2011 he agreed to a settlement that today lets two outside monitors regularly inspect the health care and mental health care provided to inmates.

In the years since the settlement, Howard's jail team reported a number of suicide attempts as "individual inmate disturbances," a category that does not trigger an automatic report to the State Commission of Correction in Albany, which polices local jails.

After The News this year published five such examples, the commission told Howard and his officials to follow the rules on the reporting of serious incidents or face a lawsuit. Thomas Diina, the superintendent of Erie County's Jail Management Division, formally told the commission in June that he and his personnel will comply.

While the Jail Management Division had found a gray area to justify secrecy about suicide attempts, the commission's rules regarding actual suicides are clear. Inmate deaths must be reported to the state agency, and Zylka told reporters that the death was quickly reported, verbally, to the commission. A written summary was to go to Albany within six hours, or no later than 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. But Howard's team refused to release it to the public.

 


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