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Editorial: Sheriff's Department engages in more evasions

What is it with this sheriff that his employees are so devoted to fudging the facts of life and death? Jail employees seem utterly unable – and uninterested – in honestly reporting the circumstances surrounding the deaths of inmates.

The State Commission of Correction needs to get more deeply involved in making Sheriff Timothy B. Howard understand the obligations of his high office. Nothing else seems to get through to him.

The newest known violation of good judgment occurred last month after an inmate was discovered hanging in the Erie County Correctional Facility. A jail employee summoned an ambulance, describing the case as an inmate suffering from an “air obstruction.” The employee did not use any words such as “cardiac arrest,” “not breathing” or “hanging” that would have detailed the scene the ambulance workers would have to deal with. That avoidance caused a problem for emergency workers even as it fits a pattern of deception that has settled over Howard’s administration of the department.

Inmate suicides have been a long-standing problem at Erie County’s jails, significant enough that the Justice Department sued and eventually forced the reluctant Howard and then-County Executive Chris Collins to agree to changes in policies and procedures.

It seemed to be working. For all anyone could tell, suicide attempts had been all but eliminated – until it was discovered that the department was misreporting suicide attempts as “prisoner disturbances.” With that maneuver, Howard’s administration evaded the need to notify the Commission of Correction as well as the public repercussions of its deceptive and incompetent administration of the Holding Center and the Correctional Facility.

The shroud of secrecy began to unravel when it was revealed that an inmate who later died had not suffered a heart attack, as jail personnel said, but had been the victim of a homicide, according to a review by the Commission of Correction.

Jail workers had knotted a spit mask tightly around the face of Richard Metcalf Jr. After Metcalf chewed through the mask, a pillowcase was placed over his head and he was placed facedown on an examination table. When emergency medical workers arrived, they were prevented from examining him until he was placed into an ambulance. He soon died.

It wasn’t the only time personnel in Howard’s jail misled state authorities. A brutal attack on another inmate, Carl M. Miller, was blamed on an accident. And suicide attempts were misreported as “disturbances,” in violation of state guidelines.

And, now, the jail reported that an inmate who was found hanging was suffering from an air obstruction. While jail officials insist they had nothing to hide, emergency personnel are critical of the lack of information.

“Air obstruction” did not convey the gravity of the situation, said Millgrove Fire Chief Robert Eleczko, whose department sent a volunteer trained in basic life support. It is “a huge deal” that a more accurate picture of the inmate’s condition was not relayed, he said.

The president of the Lancaster Volunteer Ambulance Corps, which sent a crew certified in advanced life support, also said that details matter. “ ‘Air obstruction’ means someone is choking,” said Chester Popiolkowski. “ ‘No pulse no respiration’ – that gives the crew more information about what they are walking into. What we were walking into was a code.”

Highly trained medical personnel at the jail were already trying to save the life of inmate Vincent Sorrentino, 31, of Buffalo. But that doesn’t excuse the dangerous and unprofessional decision not to share critical information with responding emergency crews.

That makes it look like yet another effort by this poorly led department to shade the facts. In that, it is surely not irrelevant that Howard is up for re-election this November.

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