More Blood on Sheriff Howard’s Hands

Bernie Tolbert, Democratic Candidate for Erie County Sheriff released the following statement on the latest Suicide at Erie County Jails:

The grim tally of deaths in Erie County jails has increased again with the confirmed suicide of a reportedly distraught inmate. We don’t yet know the circumstances, why, apart from being held on “drug charges,” the deceased was incarcerated, or whether he had prior arrests or known mental health issues.

What we do know is that this brings to 27 the number of deaths in Erie County jails and prisons on Tim Howard’s watch. The Holding Center and the Correctional Facility have become houses of death.

This trend and the lack of a real plan to address it must change. It must change now. It is long past time for Tim Howard to go. That’s why I am running for Sheriff. I will bring the change we need.

What is especially troubling about this latest death is the sheriff’s refusal to release to the public detailed information about the circumstances of the tragedy. The lack of transparency and accountability is part of the dysfunction and mismanagement of the county jails under Tim Howard, which continues to have tragic and unjust consequences for our community. There is no more damning indication of mismanagement and dysfunction than unnecessary and negligent death. The manager of any other operation with Tim Howard’s track record — a coach, a store manager, the operator of an amusement ride for children—-would have been dismissed for incompetence long ago.

Sheriff Howard talks of the new measures he’s adopted in the jails and speaks of plans to improve the handling of inmates with drug or mental health problems. But how many deaths must the people of Erie County tolerate before making the necessary changes? It is time for more than new measures and plans that adjust things on the margin of the problem. Our community deserves wholesale change in the culture of managing the county jails. I offer that change through an entirely new approach based on my experience as a senior official in the FBI and a private security executive for the NBA and major corporations, as well as my training as a social worker.

1)     Provide better training for deputies and staff in dealing with drug users and those with mental health issues.

2)     Improve monitoring of inmates with mental health challenges, suspected or already identified.

3. Enhance the presence of mental health professionals in the jails capable of assisting deputies and staff in making proper assessments of individuals and providing the correct care.

4. Immediately institute a policy of public transparency and accountability. No more mysteries about what is happening in the jails. No more sweeping bad news under the rug or dismissing tragedies by saying, “these things happen.”

5.  Above all, change the culture in the jails. The sheriff needs to be present at the Holding Center and the Correctional Facility on a regular basis. He needs to lead. The sheriff needs to provide training and moral support to the staff and needs to report to the public how, as a team, the jails are being managed. Without that level of involvement on the part of the sheriff, the county jail system will continue to fail our community and be a national disgrace to Erie County.

Tim Howard must do better, and so must we.

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