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The Buffalo News takes you inside Erie County Holding Center

Roughly 900 Erie County jail inmates live in the Erie County Holding Center in downtown Buffalo and the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden, but the Holding Center is the first stop for all of them.

Most inmates are repeat offenders who have seen the inside of a jail before. But for most of us, the county jails are something we rarely view, except from the outside as the ultimate symbols of crime and punishment or as focal points of controversy.

Now, with permission from the Erie County Sheriff's Office, The Buffalo News is giving readers an in-depth, inside look at the maximum-security Holding Center. Click here to explore it in depth.

Sheriff's Deputy Carmen Clarke monitors inmates through Plexiglas in the Delta Long Constant Watch section. Click on the image to see more photos of the Holding Center. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

There's more room in the Erie County Holding Center than there used to be.

The high-security facility, capable of housing up to 680 inmates, is a first stop for processing almost everyone who has a serious run-in with the law. It's the oldest county jail building, with some parts dating to 1938, said Superintendent Thomas Diina. Comparatively, the rural Alden facility houses mostly low- to medium-risk offenders.

Not long ago, the county jail system was practically bursting at the seams with inmates – to the point where Sheriff's Office administrators would plead with local and state police to issue appearance tickets to those arrested on nonviolent offenses because there simply wasn't space for them.

(Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Administrators were also calling jails all over Western New York, looking to bunk Erie County inmates elsewhere during weekends when the two jail buildings exceeded capacity with more than 1,450 inmates, said Undersheriff Mark Wipperman.

Factors such as the decriminalization of some offenses and changing criminal sentencing guidelines have contributed to a decline in the inmate population over the past few years, administrators said. The state's bail reform laws, which go into effect in 2020 and will limit cash bail and pretrial detention, are expected to reduce inmate numbers even more.

Inmate Brandon Moore does pull-ups in the Erie County Holding Center. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Even so, the county jail system represents daily life for more than 900 inmates at any given time. A majority have not been sentenced and await the resolution of their criminal cases. Those sentenced to less than a year behind bars also serve their time here. Anyone sentenced for longer goes to state prison.

Because of the downtown Holding Center's proximity to courts and hospitals and its high-security design, inmates who are deemed to be "high-risk," have known gang affiliations, or have serious mental or physical health needs are assigned housing here. Health emergencies and deaths involving inmates are more likely here. It's also where hundreds of deputies work. The building houses the jail system's detox and mental health units, as well as specialized housing units for military veterans and a high school program.

Sommerville Sanford uses a pay phone at the Erie County Holding Center. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

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