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County legislators introduce law requiring more transparency in jail deaths

Democrats in the Erie County Legislature say they are tired of being the last to receive details on jail deaths. So they have introduced a law to force the sheriff to provide them with a report whenever an inmate dies or becomes seriously injured and requires hospitalization.

Their bill gives Sheriff Timothy B. Howard two days after an incident to deliver the report to the Legislature. If he doesn't, lawmakers intend to go to court to force him to comply.

The Democrats say the report can be the same one that Howard's Jail Management Division already sends to the state Commission of Correction. The agency regulates New York's local jails and in 2017 warned Howard to follow its reporting requirements or face legal action.

Thirty inmates have died during Howard's years as sheriff, one every six months on average. The rate should slow, however, as the Holding Center in downtown Buffalo and the Correctional Facility in Alden take in fewer prisoners. A state law now requires judges to release more defendants to await trial without having to post bail.

Details on jail deaths and hospitalizations are difficult to come by. Howard, his jail officials and the County Attorney's Office usually refuse to release jail reports, including death reports, under New York's Freedom of Information Law. The officials reason that doing so would violate the inmate's privacy.

The Commission of Correction releases the reports it receives from Erie County, but the documents are heavily redacted, to omit jail security methods and to protect the inmate's private health information. Health information is guarded by the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.

The Buffalo News typically relies on an inmate's family to provide information that can then be used to get additional details from the Howard team.

"The information we're getting, we're getting from Matt Spina and The Buffalo News," said Timothy Meyer of Cheektowaga, the Legislature's Democratic majority leader, as he talked Thursday about the need for the new law.

The bill states that it is "indefensible and unacceptable" for legislators to have to rely on news media to learn the details about inmate deaths and injuries.

Meyer said lawmakers want the official reports faster than they can get them from the Commission of Correction. And their bill says they want the reports in unredacted form.

The Howard team expressed worries about the Democrats' proposal.

"We are consulting with counsel," said Administrative Chief John W. Greenan, "but there are initial concerns about HIPAA-protected information and other issues about the scope of the law."

He said the Sheriff’s Office will continue to file reports with the Commission of Correction, according to its guidelines.

Six Democrats signed on to sponsor the "Jail Management Transparency and Accountability Act," enough to pass it. In its introduction, lawmakers say the Sheriff's Office has resisted past attempts to provide injury and death reports even though the Legislature has oversight of the office.

"The Sheriff's Office does not even notify the Legislature when a death or serious medical situation involving a prisoner has occurred, let alone provide details or data," the bill says.

Democratic Legislator John Gilmour, who did not co-sponsor the law, described some of the initial language as unnecessarily inflammatory against the sheriff.

The proposed law is the latest effort by Democratic legislators, particularly Chairwoman April Baskin, D-Buffalo, to make the Sheriff’s Office more transparent and to provide safer conditions for inmates. Last year, the Legislature secured funding to issue body cameras to the deputies who patrol roads and staff the Holding Center. Lawmakers again created a jail advisory board, and they earmarked $1 million to treat addicted inmates with Suboxone.

Meanwhile, four Erie County citizens, past members of the Community Corrections Advisory Board, went to court in 2017 to force the sheriff to provide accurate reports to the Commission of Correction or face a contempt of court citation. The four won their case, but the decision was recently overturned. They are contemplating an appeal to the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals.

Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo questioned the law's legality.

"It seems like this is just another in a long string of attacks against the Erie County sheriff," he said.

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