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Howard rails against agency that named Erie County jails among state's worst

In February, a state agency ranked the Erie County jails among the worst-run in New York.

Sheriff Timothy B. Howard told county lawmakers Thursday that the ranking says more about the state Commission of Correction than it does about the lockups he oversees.

"I ask that this body remain open-minded to the possibility -- at least the possibility -- that the state is being picayune with certain facilities that have opposed their will in the past," Howard said, "probably none moreso than us."

As he has over the years, Howard  railed about the commission being inconsistent, unfair and even "foolish." Meanwhile, an assistant county attorney sat at his side, to prevent him from talking about any of the lawsuits against Erie County stemming from inmate deaths and mistreatment.

In its February report, the commission said "managerial shortcomings of the Erie County Sheriff's Office have contributed to numerous serious incidents ... including inmate escapes, assaults and deaths." The commission placed the Holding Center in downtown Buffalo and Correctional Facility in Alden among the five worst-run county facilities in the state.

Report: Erie County lockups among 5 worst in state

In a written response to Howard's comments, the commission said its report detailing "severe management deficiencies and numerous serious incidents – including deaths, assaults, and escapes – at Erie County’s facilities speaks for itself."

"The commission continues to monitor the facilities and enforce the legal and administrative standards to ensure the safety and security of staff, incarcerated individuals, visitors and the public," the agency said.

The chairwoman of the Legislature's Public Safety Committee, Buffalo Democrat April Baskin, had wanted Howard to describe in a public forum how he and his team were addressing the problems. But she cut him off at one point to say the Legislature has to respect the Commission of Correction's role. She later reminded him 23 inmates have died since he became sheriff in 2005.

Baskin eventually got many of the answers she sought. For the most part, they came from Jail Management Superintendent Thomas Diina, who sat nearby. For example:

On the grievance procedure for inmates: The commission said the jails operate under an outdated grievance policy; inmate grievances take too long to process; and too little information is recorded by the staff investigating the complaints. Diina told Baskin the Jail Management Division has updated the policy, provides more information and the decisions by Erie County officials are almost always upheld on grievances appealed to a unit inside the Commission of Correction. Diina invited Baskin into the Holding Center on a future occasion to see the process, and she accepted.

On serious jail incidents: The Commission found that Erie County officials had either misreported or failed to report serious events, including the erroneous release of an inmate. County jail officials also had labeled a number of suicide attempts "individual inmate disturbances," a category that does not require an automatic report to Albany. Diina said the issue had been largely resolved before the February report. The county last year asked the state agency to clarify certain requirements and then submitted an improvement plan that was accepted.

On staffing: In its report, the commission noted that the Holding Center and Correctional Facility had been chronically understaffed, but over time, and with Albany's intervention, the problem had been solved. Both Howard and Diina explained the chronic problems of too-few staff and too many inmates have been addressed with infusions of money, not just for new hires but for the probation officers and other employees who help the courts move defendants through the system. Most critical was the decision to no longer have the Holding Center serve as the Buffalo police lockup for males awaiting arraignment. The city opened its own lockup in 2012.

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