By Nan L. Haynes
The County Charter says the Legislature has the power to “study and investigate” when it is in the “best interest of the County.” So, I greeted 2018 with a sense of optimism that the Democratically controlled legislature would execute its duty to study and investigate the Erie County Sheriff’s Office. Through its power to oversee the Sheriff’s Office, the legislature can check Sheriff Howard’s propensity to defy principles of human decency and the law. If it does, then the deadly and inhumane conditions at our jails will improve, and millions of dollars that would be spent to defend the Sheriff against litigation over those conditions will be saved.
Thanks to Buffalo News investigative reporter Matt Spina, we know that under Sheriff Howard’s watch our jails are houses of horror. We know that 22 prisoners died under his watch, one of them strangled at the hands of his deputies who knotted a mask around his neck and pulled a pillow case over his head. Countless others were left sick after being denied medical care or injured after being beaten. While I applaud Spina for his work, the citizens of Erie County should not have to rely on him to uncover the horror. Instead our legislators should execute their duty to investigate now.
Anyway, the County can’t afford to wait for Spina’s next jail story. According to librarian Jean Dickson, who researched the cost of defending and settling the lawsuits that arose from these deaths, injuries and illnesses, I know that my fellow county citizens and I already spent close to $2.5 million dollars. We can’t afford any delay; we can’t afford to continue to pay for the damage caused by the Sheriff’s gross negligence and malfeasance.
The Legislature also has the power to subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, and require the production of evidence material to its investigation. I urge the Legislature to initiate its investigation now by inviting the Sheriff to attend its next session. Ask him to explain under oath how and why under his watch so many have been harmed and ask him to explain under oath what he has done to better protect the prisoners in his custody. Ask him to bring evidence to support his testimony. As the chief executive of the Sheriff’s Office, he ought to have the answers and the documents to support them. If the Sheriff declines the invitation, I urge the Legislature to issue him a subpoena.
The Legislature also has the power to appoint advisory boards of citizens to help it investigate. To that end I suggest it reinstate the Erie County Community Corrections Advisory Board and guarantee seats at the table for both prisoner advocates and law enforcement personnel. The board, composed of community leaders from mental health, legal, government, and prisoner advocacy organizations, was created by the Legislature in 2010 following an investigation into the mismanagement of the Erie County Holding Center by the U.S. Justice Department, but effectively suspended in early 2014 when the Republican controlled Legislature downsized it and left vacant seats unfilled.
Nan Haynes is a professor emerita at SUNY Buffalo Law School.