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Editorial: Erie County’s mismanaged jail system calls for advisory board

The Erie County Legislature should set politics aside and establish a permanent corrections advisory board.

For nearly a decade, conditions inside the county’s Holding Center and Alden Correctional Facility have been dangerous. Twenty-four inmates have died. A July report by the Commission of Correction labeled the 2016 death of inmate India Cummings a “homicide” due to “grossly incompetent” and negligent medical care. In a separate case, the Commission of Correction found that the 2012 death of inmate Richard A. Metcalf resulted from missteps by jail deputies who had knotted a spit mask around his neck and pulled a pillowcase over his head, then prevented medics from helping Metcalf.

As long ago as 2009, the U.S. Justice Department found the jail system failed to meet minimum standards in supervising and protecting inmates and preventing suicides.

The elected official in charge of all this, Sheriff Timothy Howard, sees no evil, hears no evil, speaks no evil. When deposed in a lawsuit about a jailhouse death, Howard answered, “I don’t know” 68 times.

April Baskin, a Democrat and majority leader of the Erie County Legislature, has proposed creating a permanent Corrections Specialists Advisory Board. A jail advisory board used to exist. Established in 2010 as a community response to failures of the jail system, the original board passed resolutions, including proposing the office of ombudsman to independently reviewing complaints about the jails. The ombudsman was rejected by the Legislature, but another board recommendation – that the Legislature put together a conditional release commission for prisoners in Alden – was approved and now exists.

When the Republicans became the majority in 2014, the board dissolved from neglect. As people left the board, no new members were appointed.

Baskin is drafting a local law that would make a new “specialists” advisory board permanent. It would be composed of professionals who have long careers in corrections fields such as re-entry or mental health. The aim: Appoint professionals whose advice will be based on expertise, not politics.

Such experts could make recommendations to the sheriff – we hope he listens – and, as Baskin said, strengthen communication between the Sheriff’s Office and the county Legislature.
So far, the only county legislator supporting Baskin’s proposal is Patrick Burke of Buffalo. Another Democratic county legislator, Barbara Miller-Williams, has proposed reinstating the old advisory board, but in a way that suggests the sheriff could stack the board with friendly members.

The presumption is that Sheriff Howard’s fellow Republicans will stick by him, even though he is doing a terrible job.

We would like to think better of the Republicans in the county Legislature. Republicans pride themselves on managing government in an efficient, businesslike manner. The current management of the jail is anything but. If Republicans want the citizens of Erie County to believe they are better at running government, they need to prove that they can improve management of the jails.

As long as Howard is sheriff and refuses to remedy the issues in the jails, there is little Democrats can do to make fundamental changes. The advisory board is a small step, but it is better than doing nothing. Even if their Republican colleagues dissent, the Democratic majority on the county Legislature, should join together, establish the advisory board, and hope it can make a difference.

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