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Editorial: Sheriff Howard has an opportunity to improve jails

Erie County’s sheriff, Timothy B. Howard, has presided over years of mismanagement of Erie County’s two jails. From high rates of inmate suicide to misreporting of suicide attempts to abuse of prisoners, the evidence shows Howard’s oversight to have been inept, at best. It's a record he still has a chance to improve.

Now, a new report gives context to the incompetence: The state Commission of Correction ranked Erie County jails among the five worst in New York. It’s dismaying, but hardly surprising.

But the finding also gives Howard an opportunity to end his career on a higher note. Howard, who told The News last fall that he would not run for another term, should make it his goal to improve the jail’s performance to the point that the commission acknowledges the turnaround. It’s an opportunity he should grasp.

The commission’s evaluation reports 26 “significant findings” at the Erie County Holding Center and the Erie County Correctional Facility. That’s up from eight such findings in the previous year. The latest report puts Erie County near the bottom of list that also includes New York City’s Rikers Island, Greene County Jail, Dutchess County Jail and Onondaga County Justice Center and Penitentiary.

Except for Rikers Island, Erie County’s jails led the others in inmate-on-inmate assaults, inmate-on-jail-personnel assaults, group or gang assaults, hospital admissions of inmates and inmates with self-inflicted injuries. The holding center, alone, reported that 423 inmates were admitted to a hospital over a period of roughly two years. The next highest facility was Dutchess County, which had 100.

In addition, Erie County Sheriff’s officials reported two attempted escapes from the holding center and one “erroneous release” between Jan. 1, 2016, and Dec. 26, 2017. The facilities were also found to have problems with the inmate grievance process, visitation policies and sanitation at the facility.

The previous evaluation had cited the jail for problems including improperly housing minimum security female inmates with maximum security inmates at the holding center, destroying inmate property without justification or required documentation and only allowing inmates access to laundry services once a week, not twice as required.

It is possible – wise, even – to have some sympathy for public officials charged with overseeing jails. Their populations are unhappy, often disruptive and sometimes violent. That’s a fact and it needs to be considered.

But why does Erie County have to be so much worse than so many other such facilities? Surely, leadership – or the lack of it – must play an important role the unacceptably poor performance of these jails.

Indeed, the commission came to that very conclusion in its report: “Managerial shortcomings of the Erie County Sheriff’s Office have contributed to numerous serious incidents at the Erie County Holding Center and Erie County Correctional Facility, including inmate escapes, assaults and deaths,” the commission wrote.

That gives Howard his chance to step up. He can organize a detailed and focused effort to respond to the issues that have plagued the jail in recent years, confronting the issues that continue to arise. We know there are many good men and women who work in his department. He should make use of them. No one wants to wind up a career trailing a record of poor performance.

What he shouldn’t do is rely on a spokesman’s weak-tea argument criticizing the methodology of the commission’s study. If there is evidence of that, the department should document it and push for revisions. Otherwise, it simply looks like yet another effort by this administration to evade responsibility for its chronic and unacceptable shortcomings.

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