In an interview with Matt Spina of The Buffalo News a few weeks back, Erie County Executive Chris Collins said, “I believe in recognizing the importance of promoting personal accountability and personal responsibility”
Evidently, this statement only applies to the poor, the unemployed and those who dare cast a shadow upon the path of his royal highness of Clarence as he enters the Rath Building each day. It certainly does not seem to apply to his Sheriff, his County Attorney nor does it seem to apply to him.
We’re going on nearly two years of disturbing problems in our Erie County jails, specifically at the Erie County Holding Center. With three suicides in four months, and past reports of prisoners being beaten, raped, denied basic medical care and medication, escapes, poor security, mismanagement, and the denial of basic hygienic products, the county prisons are a sordid embarrassment.
The Department of Justice has taken the remarkable step of suing Erie County for access to our mini-Guantanamo Bay in order to investigate these issues after being stonewalled by the County Executive, County Attorney and Sheriff during the past year. Collins has attempted to turn this into a federalism issue, saying that the DOJ lacks jurisdiction in our local jails. Erie County Attorney Cheryl Green claims that if the DOJ are allowed to enter the facilities they will begin a “fishing expedition” that will most likely result in Erie County being forced to provide medical care for inmates that far outweighs the benefits that the county employees themselves receive, which is a strawman.
Since December, five inmates have attempted suicide with three ultimately taking their own life.
The DOJ contends in their court filing that the “suicide rate at the Erie County Holding Center is almost five times the national average for local jails”. Green contends the DOJ is using flawed methodology, a claim the DOJ dismisses.
If this County Executive demanded the same level of personal accountability of his staff as he does the working poor of Erie County, he would demand a wide ranging investigation into the problems in our jails, demand the resignation of Green and force Sheriff Tim Howard to open his doors to experts and investigators.
Instead, we get dismissive references to coddling criminals and inferences that the Department of Justice has some sort of hidden agenda and is a creeping entity of a monolithic federal government.
“I would have to ask the general public, who do you trust more, the federal government, the state government or your local government?” Tim Howard said. “And I think most people I talk to say they have most trust in their local government.”
What has this Sheriff done to earn the trust of the local populace? Did he earn our trust by ignoring recommendations to secure his facilities which led to Ralph “Bucky” Phillips’ escape from an Erie County jail? After his escape, Phillips shot three state troopers, ultimately killing State Trooper Joseph Longobardo. The Phillips manhunt also cost the state millions of dollars. In a state investigation following Phillips’ escape, it was found that the Sheriff “willfully operated the Alden Correctional Facility in an unsafe manner”.
Did Sheriff Howard earn our trust when a clerk in the Sheriff’s office mistakenly released rapist Rasheed Milton only to have him rape again while he was on the loose?
Did he earn our trust in 2007 when Robert Henchen died of pneumonia caused by starvation and dehydration while in Erie County custody?
This is a matter of public safety and of our community integrity. Will we let these abuses continue or will we have the courage to demand action?
People are dying on your watch, Mr. Collins. It’s time to stand up and be accountable. Or is accountability just for the less fortunate?