Apr 6


COVID-19 threat not spurring many jail releases

The incarcerated and their families are fearful of infection, but most government officials are moving slowly in response

Although local jails are potential incubators for the spread of COVID-19, authorities are moving slowly, some not at all, to release inmates being held on low-level charges and parole violations, or who are at high risk of contracting the deadly virus.

Only 10 of 89 parolees being held in Erie and Niagara county jails for low-level violations had been released as of Friday, a week after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that 1,100 such parolees would be freed statewide.

Nor have any of the 225 inmates – 165 in Erie County, 60 in Niagara County – been released who are serving local jail sentences. They’re typically serving sentences of a year or less for misdemeanors crimes.

Part of the rationale authorities cite for maintaining the status quo is that no inmates in the jails have tested positive for the coronavirus. That overlooks the fact that no inmates have been tested in the county jails.

“I don’t feel safe,” Donta Williams, an inmate in the Erie County Holding Center, told Investigative Post in a phone call. “[The deputies] are coming and going in and out of jail. We don’t know where they’re going. That’s how this thing spreads. They’re liable to bring it to us.” 

Family members and attorneys for another nine inmates in Erie County jails also expressed concerns to Investigative Post. They portrayed the jails as unsanitary and unsafe, and too confining to practice social distancing. Some noted that underlying health conditions make some inmates more susceptible to contracting the virus.

“I want them home,” said Shawneequa Pearson, a Buffalo woman with two loved ones in the Holding Center. “If we have to go through this, I want to go through it together, at home.” 

A number of factors, and public officials, contribute to the inertia. 

State parole officials are limited by the terms of the amnesty announced by Cuomo.

Erie County District Attorney John Flynn has opposed most of the motions for bail relief, but is reviewing jail sentences, a step Niagara County District Attorney Caroline Wojtaszek  so far has refused to take.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz is not using the powers experts say he has at his disposal to trim the county’s jail population. Mayor Byron Brown is nowhere to be found on the issue.

Public defenders and defense lawyers in have started submitting motions seeking bail relief for some inmates held in Erie County jails. There’s scant evidence of similar activity in Niagara County.

The lack of progress leaves inmates and their relatives anxious.

“I understand jail isn’t supposed to be comfortable, but with everything going on, there should be protection,” said Deshema Clark, whose fiance is in the Erie County Holding Center. “They should be treated as people.”

Many safety concerns

The conditions inside the jails is a concern to inmates and jailers alike. An expert in infectious disease spread inside prisons and jails has told Investigative Post it’s not a question of if, but when, the virus reaches these facilities. 

A spokesman for the Erie County Sheriff’s Office recently conceded that the task of keeping prisoners safe is “extremely challenging.” Sheriff Tim Howard, who has no power to release prisoners himself, has said he will not oppose efforts to release people from his jails, especially parole violators.

But Scott Zylka, Howard’s spokesman, told Investigative Post over the weekend that “the Sheriff’s Office has an ample supply of soap and each inmate has a sink in their cell, as well as a common area sink and soap dispenser in the pods. This supply is supplemented with hand sanitizer.” 

Since mid-March, when the county declared a state of emergency, 102 people have been released from custody because they finished serving their sentence, posted bail or were granted parole by the state board. However, despite Cuomo’s March 27 executive order, the overall jail population has dropped by only 50, as arrests continue and about 100 arraignments have taken place.  

After three jail management employees tested positive for COVID-19, more than 30 workers were ordered to quarantine. And, at one point, up to 12 inmates who reported symptoms were isolated from the general jail population. 

We have confirmed cases in that facility through the deputies,” said Brian Dickman, the president of Teamsters Local 264, which represents deputies working in the Erie County Holding Center. “It’s not a good place to be right now because of the close contact.”

Deputies have been fitted for N95 masks, but the unions representing road patrol and jail employees in Erie County are advocating for more protection, such as gloves and gowns. 

The lack of protection has prompted the union representing Erie County jail employees to request hazard pay for workers stationed in the Holding Center. The budget adjustment would have to come from Poloncarz. As of Friday, the county executive hadn’t responded to the union’s request.

“They have to cuff and search people and that can’t be done from six feet away,” Dickman said. 

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In Niagara County, Undersheriff Michael Filicetti said road patrol and jail staff are wearing N95 masks and are equipped with goggles and gloves. 

But five jail management employees are out sick with coronavirus-like symptoms, according to Filicetti and Niagara County jail administrator Anthony Suess. They’ve been tested for COVID-19 and results are pending, Filicetti said.

Suess said additional antibacterial soap is being provided free of charge in Niagara County, but no hand sanitizer is made available because of its alcohol content. There are challenges to fulfill other public health edicts the rest of the state is operating under, like social distancing, he noted.

“There’s not much you can do,” Suess said. 

New arrivals are quarantined to the infirmary for at least seven days, Filicetti said, but no inmates are yet symptomatic in Niagara County’s jail.

Anxiety is high among Erie County Holding Center deputies, who are fearful they’ll contract COVID-19 from someone in the inmate population.

“It’s recycled air in there so they can’t crack a window or anything,” said Dickman. “They’re limited in what they can do.” 

Suess, in Niagara County, said the main concern is not staff contracting COVID-19 from inmates, but a guard introducing the virus to a closed population. 

“We’re concerned that somebody on the outside is going to bring it into the inmates,” he said.

Bill Kapri, a rapper known by his stage name Kodak Black, is being held in Niagara County while he awaits transfer to another facility t0 serve time for a federal gun charge. His lawyer, Ian Harrington, said Kapri — like Harrington’s other seven other clients in custody in Niagara County — are anxious. 

“They’re all concerned, obviously,” Harrington said.

Different approaches by DAs

Erie County Legislator Howard Johnson, who oversees the Public Safety Committee, wrote Flynn, the district attorney, on March 24 to express his concerns about conditions at the Holding Center. The county’s superintendent of jails subsequently agreed to update Johnson weekly on conditions in the holding center.

“If they go on record and say everything is fine and it isn’t, that’s going to be tragic,” Johnson said.

About 50 of the approximately 165 people serving sentences in Erie County jails, often for offenses like petit larceny, are scheduled for release in the upcoming 45 days. Flynn has tasked two staff members to review cases on a rolling basis and to determine if they’re eligible for early release. 

“They may have done something wrong and they’re now paying their debt to society, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have human compassion for them and worry about their health,” Flynn told Investigative Post.

Niagara County District Attorney Caroline Wojtaszek said she is not considering a similar review of sentences.

“COVID-19 is not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” she said. “We take inmate health and safety very seriously, and I feel that we have taken every precaution necessary to ensure that.”

Flynn said defense attorneys have filed 40 to 50 motions to change conditions for people held on bail awaiting trial. He has rejected all but five.

The Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo and the Erie County Assigned Counsel Program are working to prepare motions arguing for their clients’ release. Due to statewide bail reform, most of those being held on bail are facing felony charges.

“I don’t expect that number [of motions filed] to be high because the people who are sitting with a bail right now are sitting there because they’re violent felons, for the most part,” said Dan Grasso, acting administrator for the assigned counsel program.

Flynn said he will continue reviewing requests for release on a case-by-case basis. 

In Niagara County, the DA’s office has received only one request for release, Wojtaszek said. According to her, the defendant has a “lengthy criminal history,” is serving a local sentence for a felony conviction, and did not document a health concern. Wojtaszek opposed the motion and the judge rejected it.

Few parolees released 

Erie County operates two jails, the Holding Center downtown and another facility in Alden. Niagara County operates a single facility in Lockport. As of Friday, the three jails held about 830 prisoners, more than half incarcerated on bail pending trial, most of them facing felony charges. 

Most of the others — about 300 — are being held for technical parole violations, such as failing to keep a job or missing an appointment with a parole officer, or are serving jail sentences of a year or less on mostly misdemeanor charges. 

The technical parole violators are eligible for release under Cuomo’s March 27 executive order.  More than 100 parole violators are being held after their arrest on new charges while already out on parole. They are not subject to order.

Cuomo’s order stipulated that those eligible for release must have stable housing and not run a high risk of recidivism or have a history of weapons or violence charges. 

Based on that criteria, just 10 parolees out of 89 who qualify for release — six of 21 in Niagara County, and four of 68 in Erie County — have been freed. The rest remain jailed.

The Niagara County jail holds 99 federal prisoners, as well.

Poloncarz not using his powers

Poloncarz could play a role in reducing Erie County’s jail population, but he has not involved himself in the matter thus far.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a national nonprofit policy and research organization, has said the county executive could take the following steps:

  • Create a working group involving the DA’s office and defense attorneys to review cases and identify inmates who may be at-risk for contracting COVID-19 because of age or underlying health conditions, such as asthma, diabetes or heart-related ailments.
  • Order the county’s Department of Probation to review all cases of inmates jailed for violating parole conditions.
  • Order the sheriff to create a furlough committee to consider the release of those serving local sentences.

The furlough process is how New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio released about  900 inmates from Rikers’ Island and other city jails. The number of inmates there diagnosed with COVID-19 at Rikers’ Island has soared from one to 200 in the past two weeks. That has fueled fears of major outbreaks in other jails and prisons, which could place further stress on hospitals treating virus victims.

Both Vera and representatives for de Blasio’s office suggested the furlough process would be the most effective way to reduce the risk of infection in Erie County jails.

Why hasn’t Poloncarz acted? 

The county executive was circumspect when asked by an Investigative Post reporter at his press conference Friday.

“I’ve had no requests or proposals come to my office,” he said. “I don’t know if they’re safer in the jail, protecting them from COVID-19, or safer in public. I can’t answer that question other than to say COVID-19 is everywhere.” 

Niagara County has no elected county executive, but rather an appointed county manager. It is unclear what powers the county manager may have to reduce that county’s jail population.

Niagara County does not have an elected county executive, but rather an appointed county manager. It is unclear if the county manager has the same powers as an elected county executive.

Sam Davis, a local defense attorney, doesn’t care who opens the doors or how they do it.  He said authorities need to reduce the jail population quickly. 

“When the bodies start coming out, whose fault is it going to be? We need to get these people out now,” Davis said.