With community leaders by his side, today Bernie Tolbert, Democratic candidate for Erie County Sheriff stood in front of the Erie County Holding Center and called for the county legislature to reinstate the Erie County Community Corrections Advisory Board. 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. It was effectively suspended in early 2014 when it was downsized by the legislature and vacant seats were left unfilled. The purpose of the board was to advise the sheriff and legislature on best practices and improvements in county jail management.
Bernie Tolbert said, “In light of 22 inmate deaths including not only suicides but deaths by beating, abuse and neglect, a confirmed homicide, an apparent additional homicide now being litigated, a lawsuit against the County by the U.S. Justice Department, and an investigation and reprimand by the New York State Commission of Correction for hiding information about inmate deaths – not to mention the enormous cost to taxpayers of litigating and settling private lawsuits — Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard has lost the confidence of the public to properly manage the jails. Having a fully functioning citizens advisory board will help provide constructive ideas for improving jail management and informing the public of efforts to make things better.”
“The residents of Erie County should know,” said Tolbert, “that this board is voluntary and costs the county nothing. Neither does it represent another layer of government bureaucracy. The jails already have sufficient government oversight at the county, state and federal levels. Those agencies have found Sheriff Howard sorely lacking in his responsibilities. This board will provide advice as we fix the jails and be a conduit of information to a community that has been kept in the dark.”
“It is critically important,” continued Tolbert, “that the reinstated board comprise representatives from the community organizations and interests that made up the board when it was first empaneled in 2010. It does no good for it to be a board composed only of government officials. What is needed is community input.”
Nan Haynes, professor emerita, SUNY Buffalo School of Law and a member of the defunct corrections board said, “I am delighted that Bernie Tolbert called for the reinstatement of the board, which brings together citizens with divergent views on policing and corrections to find ways to improve the inhumane and deadly conditions in our county jails. Bernie will listen to the entire community and offer the kind of transparency and accountability that is so badly needed in the sheriff’s Office.”
Rev. Eugene Pierce, former assistant superintendent Erie County Correctional Facility, and a member of the defunct corrections board said, “I applaud Bernie’s call for the reinstatement of the Community Corrections Advisory Board, which is an effective conduit between the community the jail administration, and provides timely suggestions for how the jails in our county can be improved. Moreover, it gives the community confidence its concerns will be addressed.”
Attorney Joel Kelemen, a member of the Buffalo Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild said, “Our jail system, like our other democratic institutions, has to be accountable to the community. It must operate with the understanding that the people in jail will someday be released, and that the community benefits by lowering the recidivism rate. The Erie County Corrections Advisory Board, which is comprised of community leaders from many disciplines, should be viewed an essential part of administering the holding center, and the advice of the advisory board should be welcomed, not excluded.”
Ken Colon, Coordinator of the Buffalo Urban League’s Out of School Youth Program, said, “We are committed to collaborating with the next sheriff to find ways to improve conditions at the holding center. We welcome his commitment to exploring ways to provide individuals who lack a high school diploma the opportunity to pursue their degrees. We believe it is important to provide county jail inmates with resources and counsel for finding employment, housing, and health care resources. The advisory board can play a big role in that effort.”
Debora Hayes, Area Director for CWA District 1, said, “Every resident of our county deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, but Sheriff Howard has demonstrated the opposite belief in his management of county jails. We are dismayed by Howard’s lack of accountability to the community he is supposed to serve. We are proud to support Bernie Tolbert because of our shared commitment to civilian oversight in addressing the problems with Erie County jails. Accountability and oversight of law enforcement are critical in this era of mass incarceration that disproportionately impacts people of color.”
Community leaders joining Tolbert in calling for reinstatement of the advisory board included Karima Amin (People are Prisoners Too), Lavonne Ansari (Community Health Board), Ken Colon (Buffalo Urban League), Barry Covert (American Civil Liberties Union), Communications Workers of America, Nan Haynes, (SUNY Buffalo School of Law emerita), Joel Kelemen (National Lawyers Guild), Rev. Eugene Pierce (former. Asst. Superintendent, Erie County Correctional Facility).
About the Erie Community Corrections Board (as stated on the Erie County Legislature’s web site): The purpose of the Erie County Community Corrections Advisory Board is the discussion of corrections facilities programs and services to offer suggestions and advice for the improvement of such programs at the Erie County Correctional Facility and the Erie County Holding Center. The Advisory Board may undertake functions and activities intended to provide advice and suggestions to:
- Improve the programs and functions of the Jail Management Division and the County Correctional Facilities
- Allow public comment on the activities associated with the Erie County Holding Center and Correctional Facility
- Make formal recommendations to the Erie County Legislature, Erie County Executive and the Erie County Sheriff on the comprehensive plan for programs and services at the Correctional Facilities in Erie County, complete with a budgetary analysis and identification of possible sources of funding for initiatives that require additional funding not specified in the County’s budget.
- Receive complaints regarding the Correctional Facilities from interested parties and refer such complaints to the proper official in the office of the Erie County Sheriff for investigation.