A Health Department inspector found only minor problems during a routine check of the Erie County Holding Center's kitchen in February.
The inspector noted no sign of rats.
Yet rats are seen "almost on a daily basis," a jail employee told The Buffalo News.
"They have been observed walking through prepared food, and that food was still served," said the worker, who asked to remain unidentified.
The employee presented a snapshot of a kitchen worker holding up a dead rodent on May 23. The rat had just been killed with a broom. It's as long as a cat.
Yes, the snapshot is authentic, the Sheriff's Office says.
"As with many buildings in the city and the surrounding suburbs, rodents are a constant battle,'' said John W. Greenan, the administrative chief for Sheriff Timothy B. Howard.
The Sheriff's Office pays an extermination company to come in at least three times a month, Greenan said. The exterminator's work costs $3,300 a year on average, but the county has already spent $2,000 this year for pest control, he said.
"You can't go into all areas," Martie Muscarella said of the jail. She owns Ashland Pest Control of Buffalo, the jail's exterminator. "It's a sensitive and difficult location for us to serve."
She theorized that the adult rat in the photo had ingested some poison and was lethargic, which made it susceptible to being cornered and killed.
About a decade ago, the Holding Center was dirty. "Maintenance and sanitation are categorically inadequate throughout the facility," the U.S. Justice Department wrote when it sued in 2009 to force more humane treatment of inmates. More recently, the county's jail management superintendent, Thomas Diina, has been proud of the improvements, including the jail's cleaner state. He gives tours to people interested in the facility.
Still, the problem with rodents persists.
To fight the rats, Greenan said, the county's Buildings and Grounds staff patches cracks that allow them inside; the city picks up the Holding Center's trash daily; and three times a day supervisors inspect the kitchen, which produces some 1,200 meals from morning until night, Greenan said.
Kitchen workers, Greenan said, are also ordered to throw out any food that may have been contaminated.
As for the photo, it was taken to "document the issue" so it could be reported up the chain of command, Greenan explained.
The photo is disturbing and disgusting, said Janine Kava, who speaks for the state Commission of Correction, the agency that regulates local jails in New York. The commission expects jails to meet the state's Sanitary Code and open themselves up for inspections by their county health department. In that respect, the Holding Center complies with the commission's rules, she said.
But soon after officials in Albany saw the photo, which The News sent them, a call was made to the Erie County Health Department to urge another inspection of the jail's kitchen, Kava said. The wheels for a fresh inspection were already in motion, however, because The News had sent the Health Department the picture as well.
"We need to get answers," said April Baskin, the County Legislature's Democratic majority leader who, as chairwoman of the Public Safety Committee, wants to see the county's two main lockups improve so the Commission of Correction takes them off its list of New York's worst-run facilities.
Rats in the kitchen pose an obvious health risk to inmates, their families and the public at large, Baskin said, hinting she might ask Howard or his top jail administrators to discuss the matter before her committee.
In the previous four inspections, the Health Department cited no sign of rodents in the jail's kitchen, even though the jail's exterminator has focused on that area. But the Health Department also says its sanitarians do not typically ask employees, at restaurants or the county jail, if they have been seeing rats.
On Monday, Health Department Sanitarian Mark Davern arrived at the Holding Center for a surprise inspection of the kitchen. Despite the photo, his Health Department report says he found no sign of rodents at the "time of inspection." A jail sergeant, meanwhile, explained that an exterminator services the facility, and the matter was closed.