Apr 24


Erie County jail advisory board stalled

Panel is paralyzed by a shortage of members, even as inmate deaths and lawsuits mount.

Between inmate deaths, lawsuits and plans for a new jail, there is plenty for the Erie County Corrections Specialist Advisory Board to consider.

But the body tasked with overseeing the county’s two jails and making recommendations for programs and operations hasn’t been able to do anything for want of members at meetings.

The board’s monthly meeting held Tuesday via Zoom was the third in a row where no action could be taken due to lack of quorum. No one was present from the sheriff’s office, which usually assigns someone to report on such matters as body cameras for guards and drug treatment for inmates.

“We’ve got to get people here,” board member Michael Deal told colleagues on Tuesday. “I don’t know why people aren’t showing up now. Winter’s over. And we’ve got work to do. And this is important. Nothing gets more important than what we’ve been asked to look into.”

The board earlier in the day received a request from Erie County Legislature Chairwoman April Baskin to review the death of William Hager, a schizophrenic locked up in the Alden correctional facility who died last fall from water intoxication.

Erie County Legislature Chairwoman April Baskin. Photo by Garrett Looker.

Baskin also asked the board to review the case of James Ellis, whose cancer went undiagnosed in 2021 until he was found unresponsive and taken from the Holding Center to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. In addition, Baskin asked the board to review all inmate deaths — at least eight, according to media reports and a database maintained by the state attorney general’s office — that have occurred during the past four years and make recommendations.

Baskin’s requests came after the state Commission of Correction, which reviews all deaths in New York jails and prisons, last month issued a report on Ellis’ death and told her to conduct an inquiry into the fitness of jail health care providers.

The lack of quorums has been due to absent members and vacancies. Three seats on the 11-member board are open. The board’s website has no minutes posted for any meetings. No agendas have been posted since 2020. The membership roster posted on the website includes names of former board members who left the board long ago — Cindi McEachon, who resigned in May of last year, is still listed, as is J. Miles Gresham, who left Buffalo in 2022 to take a job in Boston.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram & YouTube

The county Legislature created the corrections advisory board in 2019 to replace a previous advisory board that was formed in 2010 and stopped meeting within five years.

Deal, who is legal director of the criminal defense unit at the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo, told colleagues on Tuesday that he would have to recuse himself from any review of Hager’s death because his office represented the prisoner and so there would be a conflict of interest. Board member Julianna Everdyke might also have a conflict because she’s employed by the county Department of Mental Health, which provided care to Hager while he was incarcerated, Deal said.

Otherwise, the board during its three most recent meetings hasn’t discussed inmate deaths despite publicity over Hager’s death and a state attorney general’s investigation launched in February after the county medical examiner found that Shaun Humphrey died from positional asphyxiation after holding center guards tried to handcuff him. The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide.

“The things that we should be focusing on, like the deaths, the care, the concerns, we’re not able to,” board member Dixie Farr said. “We come here and we talk, I don’t want to say fake business, but it’s polite business, instead of getting to the meat of the work. We need leadership. And we need leadership that’s going to hold the board accountable.”

Tuesday’s meeting was the first since a jury this month awarded $95 million to the family of Richard Metcalf, who died in 2012 after jailers in the holding center put a spit mask and pillow over his head while he lay prone. The state commission and the county medical examiner’s office ruled the death a homicide. 

Donate to support our nonprofit newsroom

In March, the county paid $1.2 million to settle a lawsuit filed by representatives of David Glenn, who attempted suicide in the holding center in 2012.

At least four lawsuits against the county filed by estates of deceased inmates are pending. Families of at least three other dead inmates have retained lawyers.

The county in December hired two consultants to create a feasibility study for a new jail. Sheriff John Garcia has pegged the cost at $200 million. Under terms of the request for proposals for the feasibility study, the consultants must speak with the advisory board.

Under the board’s bylaws, entities such as the Erie County Bar Association, the sheriff’s office and the county executive’s office are responsible for appointing members to the board. On Tuesday, Kevin Ryan told fellow board members that the board should contact people or organizations who either haven’t made appointments or whose appointees haven’t been attending meetings.

Get our newsletters delivered to your inbox
* indicates required

Newsletters *

“Doesn’t the fault lie with the individual who appoints the position?” Ryan said. “Why isn’t that person held accountable?”

Board member Jerome Wright questioned whether the board can force appointments.

“You can’t force anybody to send somebody,” Wright said. “You can’t force them to send the right person.”

Investigative Post

Get our newsletters delivered to your inbox * indicates required

Newsletters *