Updated: 3:08 p.m.
A growing, but still small number of people are being released from local jails and the immigration detention center in Batavia in response to concerns about possible infection from COVID-19.
Up to 80 people have gotten out in recent weeks as the result of efforts by advocates to release those incarcerated to get them out of harm’s way from the coronavirus. Some were near the tail end of their sentences for misdemeanor crimes. Others were in for parole violations, and still others had their bail eliminated or reduced.
While no inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 at the three jails in Erie and Niagara counties – only a handful have been tested – there’s been a surge of infections at the immigration detention center in Batavia. In the past week, 11 detainees have tested positive for the virus.
Meanwhile, more law enforcement officers at those facilities have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Seven Erie County and two Niagara County jail management employees have tested positive as of Monday.
Teamsters Local 264, which represents employees working in the Erie County Holding Center, has requested hazard pay for the deputies working with inmates during COVID-19. The county has rejected that, but is said to be considering offering comp pay, said union President Brian Dickman.
“It’d be an added benefit to the hazards they face on their day-to-day duties,” Dickman said.
Still more Buffalo police officers have tested positive. Twenty-one officers have been diagnosed, according to Captain Jeff Rinaldo, a spokesman for the Buffalo Police Department. All but a handful, including a veteran member of the department who remains in the intensive care unit, have recovered.
Prosecutors in Erie, but not Niagara County, are reviewing the sentences of inmates who are serving their last 45 days of their sentences. That led to the release so far of 17 inmates, the byproduct of a collaboration between Erie County District Attorney John Flynn and the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo.
“If the coronavirus finds its way into the Erie County Holding Center or correctional facility, it’s going to be a bloodbath in there,” said Kevin Stadelmaier, chief attorney for Buffalo Legal Aid’s Criminal Defense Unit.
The DA’s office will consider the sentences of additional inmates when they approach 45 days of their release date. About 125 are serving sentences in Erie County jails and 52 in Niagara County. The district attorney in Niagara County has said she’s unwilling to conduct a similar review as Flynn.
The Fraternal Order of Police has pushed against the release of people from jails if their past history includes any violent crimes, even if they are presently being held on a nonviolent conviction. Flynn rejects that contention, saying a judge took a person’s past into consideration during sentencing and an inmate is serving time for their most recent, not past crime.
Ten parolees have been released as the result of an order issued last month by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. They were incarcerated for technical violations, such as failing to hold a job or missing a meeting with their parole officer. Eighty-two parolees continue to be held on technical violations in Erie and Niagara jails.
Advocacy groups have called on Cuomo to release people who are at high risk for contracting the virus, including those over 50 or with compromised immune systems. Flynn said he is not looking to release inmates based on age, but is taking that into consideration when reviewing bail and re-sentencing applications.
Defense attorneys have been working for the release of their clients during the pandemic. In Erie County, 62 bail motions have been filed, resulting in 15 people held pretrial being released from custody and another 18 having their bail amount lowered.
Federal immigration detention centers, including the one in Batavia managed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, have also been subject to concerns about COVID-19 outbreaks. Detainees last week described to Investigative Post what they said were unhealthy conditions at the center.
Attorneys recently filed a lawsuit against ICE, arguing for the release of almost two dozen detainees, three of whom have subsequently been released. ICE refuses to disclose how many other detainees have been released since the pandemic was declared on March 11.