Updated: 6:30 p.m.
Nearly 600 men and women are incarcerated in close quarters in Erie County’s two jails, at risk of catching the deadly COVID-19 virus.
More than half are being held on bail, yet to be found guilty of a crime. Others are jailed on parole violations or serving sentences of up to one year.
What’s it going to take to get at least some of them released?
County officials, both County Executive Mark Poloncarz and a spokesman for Sheriff Tim Howard, said Monday they lack the authority to release anyone.
“We can’t just let someone out,” said Scott Zylka, a spokesman for Howard. “As soon as we get an order, the person is released.”
Rather, the power to release rests with county judges, under an order issued Monday by the state’s Chief Administrative Judge. Under the order, those held on bail or serving sentences can petition the court for release.
“I think that it’s case-by-case,” said defense attorney Paul Cambria. “Statistically, I think there’s a good chance that a lot of those individuals will be let out and a bail application will be granted by the judge in the jurisdiction.”
Requests will be handled by a judge assigned to hear cases, as opposed to the judge who originally set bail, which is usually the case. Two county judges are assigned weekly to handle cases on a rotating basis. Most courts have closed because of the pandemic.
In addition, Erie County District Attorney John Flynn said his office will consider requests for release from people being held on bail. Any request would then go before a judge, who would have the final say.
“We will consent or not consent to the motion on a case-by-case basis. We have not received any motions at this time,” Flynn said.
It is unclear who has the authority to release those held for violation parole, perhaps the State Division of Parole.
The task of preparing requests for re-sentencing or elimination of bail would fall to private defense attorneys such as Cambria or the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo, which represents low-income defendants in Buffalo City Court.
Cambria said he received calls Monday from those seeking help. Legal Aid has been reviewing cases, seeing which clients may qualify for release.
There are growing concerns for the well-being of those incarcerated at the downtown Holding Center and the other county jail in Alden.
“Continued incarceration will be a death sentence,” said Natasha Soto, the founder of Black Love Resists in the Rust & Just Resisting, in a statement.
“The unsanitary and dangerous living conditions in our jails make them a petri dish for viral infection and neither the jails nor the county’s hospitals have the capacity to handle such a large outbreak,” she said.
A coalition of nine local social justice organizations issued a call today for the release of a wide range in people incarcerated in the county jails. They include those held on bail, have served at least 30 days of a local sentence, are in custody because of technical violations of parole, are over the age of 50, or have serious health issues that could make them susceptible to the virus.
The coalition includes Citizen Action, Partnership for the Public Good, PUSH Buffalo and Showing Up For Racial Justice. (Disclosure: Erin Heaney, daughter of Investigative Post Editor, is the executive director of SURJ.)
The coalition staged a demonstration around 5 p.m. today outside the Holding Center. Respecting social distancing, protestors circled the facility in about 30 cars, many decked out in slogans, for about a half-hour. Their intention: to express solidarity with those imprisoned inside and bring public attention to the issue.
The design and close quarters of the two jails make the task of keeping prisoners safe “extremely challenging,” Zylka, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, which manages the facilities.
Two deputies working at the Holding Center have been diagnosed with COVID-19. He came in contact with 14 other employees, who are isolated at home, Zylka told Investigative Post. Twelve incarcerated people have been isolated in the holding center; two who Zylka said had contact with the infected deputy, 10 who have self-reported symptoms.
None of those 12 have been tested for the virus, a decision Zylka said was made after consultation with the county Health Department. However, Health Department officials have said they do not have information about any of these individuals.
He said deputies have “sufficient equipment” and protect themselves from infection and that those incarcerated have access to hand sanitizers and soap and water.
The spread of infection is a concern at other facilities. More than 40 guards at the Wende State Correctional Facility in Alden are under quarantine.