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Ruling reopens door to jail mismanagement

A ruling last week by the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court may have been legally appropriate, but it opens the door to operational vandalism by the Erie County Sheriff’s Office. The Commission of Correction should be on its toes.

The ruling overturned a lower court’s decision ordering Sheriff Timothy B. Howard to accurately report serious jail incidents to the commission or be held in contempt. The appeals court canceled that order on the unfortunately plausible grounds that, because the plaintiffs couldn’t show that they were at risk of harm, they lacked standing to sue.

With that, the only influences inducing jail managers to be honest with the state supervising agency are the Commission of Correction’s determination to hold the sheriff accountable for operations at the two facilities in Erie County and Howard’s interest, thus far undisclosed, in following the rules.

No one should be at ease.

At its best, Howard’s management of the jails has been indifferent. Serious breaches have occurred at both the Erie County Holding Center and the Correctional Facility in Alden. The sheriff has shown no sign that they trouble him.

Just a few of episodes of official misconduct make the case for close supervision. Under Howard’s watch, jail personnel:

• Falsely reported the death of an inmate as a heart attack when, according to the Commission’s subsequent investigation, it was actually a homicide at the hands of jailers.

• Misreported suicide attempts as “disturbances,” thereby avoiding the need to file more detailed accounts of what happened.

• Mistakenly released an inmate and did not report it to the Commission.

• Misreported the cause of an inmate’s injury as a fall when, in fact, he was beaten unconscious by another inmate after jail officials denied him the protection he had sought.

• Provided inadequate care to a female inmate, the Commission ruled, leading to her avoidable death.

For these reasons and others, the Commission of Correction in 2018 identified Erie County’s lockups among the five worst-run jails in the state. That’s what bothered the sheriff, not the events that prompted it, but even then, it didn’t bother him enough to commit to professionalism in managing the jails.

Such routine misconduct prompted four Erie County residents to go to court, where they won an order mandating Howard to report serious jail incidents accurately or risk a contempt citation. The plaintiffs were hardly uninterested: All had been part of the since-dormant Community Corrections Advisory Board. While they may have lacked legal standing, it is revelatory that the judge who issued the original ruling found the actual evidence of misconduct/incompetence/indifference compelling.

Now, barring a reversal by the state’s highest court, the onus falls back on Howard and the Commission of Correction. This offers another opportunity for the sheriff to demonstrate that professionalism matters to him and that he can be counted on to make the right choices.

But the Commission might want to add some staff.

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