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COMMENTARY

You want jail reform? Erect monument to Sheriff Howard's incompetence

Rod Watson

Forget the sporadic demonstrations with a few people pacing with placards outside the Erie County Holding Center.

That obviously hasn’t accomplished much, as evidenced by one of the latest atrocities there: the Aug. 2 death of a diabetic inmate whose blood sugar levels crashed after he was given a large dose of insulin and fed a peanut butter sandwich, both steps that experts later said should never have been taken.

That made 44-year-old Connell Burrell the 26th inmate to die on Sheriff Timothy Howard’s watch. A suicide last week at the county Correctional Facility brought the total to 27.

Instead of periodic protests, we need a permanent reminder of just how many lives have been lost while Howard's been in charge.

The protesters – and anyone who cares about justice – should put their time and energy into renting, buying or getting someone to donate a plot of land as close as possible to the Holding Center and erecting a display with all of the names of those who’ve perished there or at the Correctional Facility, the dates they died and the circumstances surrounding their demise.

It would be a monument to incompetence and indifference, because Howard apparently can’t do any better and we don’t demand any better.

And make sure to leave plenty of room to add the next fatality – because there will be a next one, and another one after that, and another one ...

In fact, incorporate an electronic element so that it can be easily updated.

This would be a permanent attraction for all of those visiting downtown in the New Buffalo. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the one person besides voters who has the power to remove Howard, would see it from his motorcade every time he comes here to brag about all he’s done for the area.

Protests over the years outside the Erie County Holding Center have failed to bring about reforms to stop the deaths of inmates during the administration of Sheriff Timothy B. Howard. (Buffalo News file photo)

What he hasn’t done is use the power granted a governor by the state Constitution to remove a sheriff after due process for what the courts call "acts of commission or omission."

Neither have voters chosen to do so, though Howard’s margin of victory in 2017 was razor thin and there have been more deaths since then.

But let’s face it: Since few of us expect to ever get arrested, it’s hard to rouse much interest in people presumed guilty and deserving of whatever happens to them if they do get picked up. And apparently we don’t care how much the lawsuits resulting from Howard’s mismanagement cost us as taxpayers, either.

However, that could all change once we have a daily reminder of how many people have perished during Howard’s tenure, even as he fought efforts by the U.S. Justice Department and state Commission of Correction before being forced to make some improvements – which obviously haven't been enough.

It could change if, every time we pass through downtown, we see the monument to Burrell, who got picked up for misdemeanor drug possession and was to serve 15 days for disorderly conduct. Instead, he's dead.

It could change if we see the monument to 29-year-old Joseph E. Bialaszewski, who died July 26, two days after being placed in a remote detox unit of the Holding Center,  out of view after complaining of illness and then going into cardiac arrest. Doctors later found he’d been bleeding internally from a perforated ulcer, apparently unnoticed, and a sheriff’s spokesman had incorrectly told the media he had been in a supervised medical unit.

It could change if we see the monument to 27-year-old India Cummings, whose 2016 death in the Holding Center the Commission of Correction’s Medical Review Board called "homicide by medical neglect."

And it could change if we see the monument to the 24 others who’ve died so far.

Besides, even if we don’t care about any of them, we certainly care about our national image. Let some out-of-town journalist say something negative, and holy hell breaks loose around here.

Erect a running marker to the Howard death toll in downtown Buffalo for the national media to take note of when they visit, and maybe then – and only then – jail reform will finally happen.

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