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Letter: Sheriff should be sued over jailhouse deaths

Sheriff should be sued over jailhouse deaths

In May the New York State Commission of Correction, the state agency that regulates county jails, found that in violation of state law Sheriff Timothy Howard failed to report attempted suicides, instead calling them “inmate disturbances.” The sheriff’s staff played this word game because it claimed prisoners sometimes make suicidal gestures “in an attempt to manipulate” staff.

The commission then ordered the sheriff to follow the law or face a lawsuit. In response, Tom Diina, the jails’ superintendent appointed by the sheriff, assured the commission that the sheriff and his jail management team were “committed to full compliance” with state law.

To support his assertion Diina pointed to some feeble actions taken by Howard. For example, he told the commission that jail management had been informed it’s not up to them to ascertain whether a prisoner found alive but hanging from a bed sheet truly wanted to die, or had another motive for stringing himself up. About that he was correct – the law requires the sheriff deem such an event an attempted suicide, which must be reported to the commission. Sadly, Diina’s assurance was enough to satisfy the commission, which did not sue the sheriff.

Just six weeks later the sheriff’s staff cut down a prisoner who had hanged himself in the Erie County Correctional Facility. Staff called an ambulance saying the prisoner had an “airway obstruction.” The sheriff’s top aide denied that the use of the term “airway obstruction” was an attempt to conceal information.

I hope the commission won’t be so easily fooled this time. I urge the commission to sue the sheriff and ask the court to order him to follow the law or face jail for contempt.

Nan L. Haynes


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