The National Lawyers Guild Buffalo Chapter (NLG Buffalo) filed a lawsuit today in Erie County Supreme Court demanding records from the Erie County Sheriff’s Office regarding its practice of concealing suicide attempts by prisoners at county jails. NLG Buffalo’s lawsuit, filed under the Freedom of Information Law, demands basic information about the Sheriff’s Office’s practice of classifying suicide attempts as mere “inmate disturbances” or “manipulative gestures” and failing to report them to the New York State Commission on Correction, as required by law.

“Under Sheriff Howard’s watch, jail officials at both the Erie County Holding Center and the County Correctional Facility   have been utterly unaccountable for the deadly and inhumane conditions that prisoners face,” said Nan Haynes, a member of NLG Buffalo, and former Vice Chair of the Erie County Community Corrections Advisory Board. “The Sheriff’s Office has systematically skirted the law by refusing to report attempted suicides and other serious problems at the jails. It is a disturbing state of affairs when our law enforcement officials seek to evade the laws that apply to them,” she added.

NLG Buffalo’s lawsuit follows more than a decade of investigations surrounding the conditions at the downtown Erie County Holding Center and the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden. Twenty-two inmates are reported to have died in custody at the facilities since 2006.  Both facilities have been subjects of a federal civil rights investigation that found widespread constitutional violations relating to suicide prevention, mental health treatment, and excessive use of force against inmates. This month, the New York State Commission on Correction named the Sheriff’s two jails among the five “worst offenders” in the State.

“By failing to produce basic records that NLG Buffalo has requested, the Sheriff’s Office violates its legal obligation to be transparent and accountable to the public, just as it violated its legal obligation to report prisoner incidents to the Commission on Correction,” said Suzanne Starr, a student attorney at UB School of Law’s Civil Liberties & Transparency Clinic, which is representing NLG Buffalo in the lawsuit.  “We were forced to bring this case to court because the Sheriff’s Office simply ignored NLG’s request and refused to comply with the most basic requirements of the Freedom of Information Law,” she added.

NLG Buffalo filed its FOIL request 328 days ago, but has not received even a single document in response or any justification for the egregious delay. The request asks for basic records such as instructions to staff, internal memos, and correspondence that would reveal the extent to which suicide attempts were misclassified and concealed.

NLG Buffalo is represented in the lawsuit by student attorneys Dominick Roa ‘19, Sebastian Sekhon ‘18, Suzanne Starr ’19, and supervising attorney Jonathan Manes of the UB School of Law’s Civil Liberties and Transparency Clinic.