Fourteen months ago, four Erie County residents won an unusual legal victory. With it, they could compel Sheriff Timothy B. Howard to accurately report serious jail incidents to a state oversight agency. If he didn't, they could return to court to ask that Howard, whose jails have been ranked among the state's worst, be held in contempt.
A lawyer for Howard objected at the time, saying the victory made the four akin to the state agency that regulates New York's local jails and that has taken Howard to court, the Commission of Correction. But State Supreme Court Justice Mark A. Montour said the four had legal standing to insist a public official do his duty.
Days ago, their victory unraveled. Five judges with the State Supreme Court's appellate division unanimously agreed the four citizens lacked legal standing to bring their case because they could not show they would be injured should the sheriff fail to report jail incidents. The judges went on to repeat a past ruling that says it's up to the Commission of Correction to enforce its standards, not the courts.
One of the four citizens is retired University at Buffalo law professor Nan Haynes, who has long been involved in efforts to improve Erie County's jails. She said the group will consider petitioning New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals, to review the case because of the "important public policy issues at stake." A Sheriff's Office spokesman did not respond to requests for comment Sunday.
The wheels on the case began to turn in 2017, when The Buffalo News revealed that Howard's jail officials were categorizing inmate suicide attempts as "individual inmate disturbances," a label that did not require an automatic report to the Commission of Correction.
The News also revealed that the staff at the Correctional Facility falsely told the commission an inmate was hospitalized because he had been hurt in an accidental fall. In fact, the inmate had sought protective custody, didn't get it, and was beaten unconscious by the inmate he feared. Even after charges were lodged against an attacker, the Correctional Facility staff let their false report to Albany stand.
Meanwhile, the Commission of Correction – often referred to as the COC – knew of another failure by Howard's team to report a serious incident. The COC said it had not been officially told of the mistaken release of a Holding Center inmate.
In May 2017, the COC sent Howard a letter directing him to follow its "reportable incident" guidelines or face a lawsuit. In response, the head of Howard's Jail Management Division, Thomas Diina, sent a letter assuring the COC that Erie County jail officials would follow the rules.
The matter might have died there, if not for an interview Howard gave The Buffalo News a few weeks later. Howard justified the decision to label certain suicide attempts as inmate disturbances or "manipulative gestures" if his staff felt the inmate was only trying to gain sympathy and didn't really want to die. That stance directly contradicted the COC's rules.
Haynes, the retired UB professor, the Rev. Eugene L. Pierce, Karima Amin and Charles Culhane had been members of the county's Community Corrections Advisory Board, a panel that went dormant for a time after Howard's fellow Republicans took control of the County Legislature. The four saw Howard's comments in the interview as a sign that he still felt free to interpret the COC's rules as he saw fit.
They began to research their court complaint. When filed, it mentioned another incomplete report to the COC, this one pertaining to the 2012 death of Holding Center inmate Richard A. Metcalf Jr. State investigators found Metcalf had been strangled to death when jail deputies knotted the strings of a spit mask around his neck. But in the days following his death, the jail staff did not mention a spit mask or any other restraint device in reports to Albany.
Months after sending Howard its warning letter in May 2017, the COC in 2018 came out with its list of the state's worst-run jails. Among those named were Erie County's – the Holding Center in downtown Buffalo and Correctional Facility in Alden. The Howard team disputed the methodology used to rank the facilities. Meanwhile, with support from the county attorney's office, the team clamped down on the public's ability to obtain jail reports under New York's Freedom of Information Law.