3 county inmates being observed for COVID-19

Three inmates being held in Erie County jails have been isolated and placed under observation after exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19.

The three people self-reported signs of upper respiratory infections during the intake process, the Sheriff’s Office medical director said in a video message released to the media Wednesday afternoon. 

These inmates are being housed separately from the general jail population. The Sheriff’s Office did not specify they’re in the Erie County Holding Center in downtown Buffalo or the Correctional Facility in Alden.  

The sheriff’s medical team contacted the Erie County Department of Health regarding one of the inmates. The Department of Health didn’t recommend further testing at this time.   

There have not been any confirmed cases of coronavirus in the Sheriff’s Office or Erie County jails. 

The Holding Center does not have a good track record regarding inmate health and safety. Thirty people in custody have died under Sheriff Tim Howard.

Currently, 606 people are in custody in the county’s two jails. Restrictions and tight quarters make it difficult to practice distancing or take other steps to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The Sheriff’s Office has refused to answer Investigative Post’s questions regarding safety protocols inside the facilities. 

“Regarding the close nature of our living facility — it is extremely high risk for transmission from person to person, including inmates and our employees,” Dr. Kevin McGee, Medical Director for the Erie County Sheriff’s Office, said during a press conference last week. “Once we have an infection, we will need to react quickly, so our goal will be to identify quickly and react accordingly.”

Meanwhile, authorities in Erie County and beyond are acting to reduce the prison population during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Office of Court Administration has directed judges to re-evaluate weekend sentences to determine if they can be suspended until at least May 1. The Office of Court Administration has not clarified whether people will have to serve these suspended weekend sentences at some point in the future.

“It’s never happened before where they take an entire group of people who are sentenced and they decide to push off their sentence,” said Kevin Stadelmaier, chief attorney for Buffalo Legal Aid’s Criminal Defense Unit.

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The unprecedented order comes “so people aren’t going in and out of jails and into the community with additional exposure,” Lucian Chalfen, the Office of Court Administration’s communications director, wrote in an email. 

The action will affect nine people in Erie County and an undetermined number statewide.

The high risk of the spread of infection is among the reasons there are nationwide calls to reduce the jail population.

“The longer it goes, and the more likely that someone entering the holding center will be infected, I think we’re going to see more movement in the area of getting people out of custody,” Stadelmaier said.  

Stadelmaier said Legal Aid has been working with the Jail Management Division Superintendent Thomas Diina to identify defendants who are at high risk, especially those over the age of 50.

Downstate, the New York Board of Corrections, the oversight committee for New York City jails, called on officials to greatly and rapidly reduce the jail population by releasing those most at risk, including those over 50 or with underlying health conditions. The board is also asking authorities to commute sentences for people who are serving less than a year.

The state prison oversight committee — the Correctional Association of New York — is recommending that Gov. Andrew Cuomo commute sentences for more than 13,000 people, the majority of whom are scheduled for release in the next two years. 

Across the country, 31 prosecutors, including four from New York, released a joint statement through the Fair and Just Prosecution organization, calling for the reduction of jail populations during the COVID-19 crisis. Erie County District Attorney John Flynn is not among those who released the statement. He said he’d review commuting sentences on a case-by-case basis.