May 15


Who’s responsible for dysfunctional jail oversight board?

The Erie County sheriff and Bar Association have failed to fill vacancies and the county Legislature has yet to act on another. This, at a time of continued prisoner deaths.

Erie County Sheriff John Garcia. Photo by Garrett Looker.

The Erie County Bar Association, the sheriff and the Legislature haven’t filled vacancies on a jail advisory board that hasn’t been able to conduct business for lack of a quorum.

Meanwhile, prisoners are dying, prompting lawsuits and millions of dollars in settlements and verdicts.

Tasked with overseeing the jail and recommending improvements, the Corrections Specialist Advisory Board hasn’t been able to review jail deaths, consider plans for a new jail or even approve a 2023 annual report that remains in draft form.

The 11-seat board, which has three vacancies, is supposed to have members ranging from inmate advocates to a person selected by the sheriff’s office. But the board, which lacks a chair, hasn’t had a quorum for its last three monthly meetings due to vacancies and absent members.

The sheriff and Bar Association have vacancies to fill, subject to confirmation by the county Legislature.

Another position reserved for a restorative justice organization also is vacant, four months after Karima Amin, executive director of Prisoners Are People Too, submitted a letter to the Legislature asking to be appointed to the seat that’s been open since last summer. Her request is pending before the Legislature’s Public Safety Committee, chaired by Legislator Howard Johnson, who, like Amin, did not respond to an interview request.

Corey McCarthy, the sheriff’s appointee, missed every meeting this year before the Legislature received his resignation on April 24, the day after the board met and bemoaned its inability to conduct business.

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“Doesn’t the fault lie with the individual who appoints the position?” board member Kevin Ryan asked his colleagues last month as they discussed absences and vacancies. “Why isn’t that person held accountable?”

Sheriff John Garcia, who sends a representative to board gatherings regardless of whether a quorum is present, hasn’t said who will replace McCarthy.

“We are actively looking for a replacement for our nominee,” sheriff’s spokesman Jeremy Lehning wrote in an email response to an interview request. “I will look into the matter further next week and will update you [with] any new information.”

The bar association’s seat on the board has been vacant for at least two months. Bar Association President Timothy Graber said he doesn’t know when his group will submit a name to the Legislature. 

“I think it will happen soon,” Graber said. “We want to be deliberate. We want to make sure we get the right person.”

The board has plenty on its plate.

Created in 2019, the board is supposed to recommend improvements to jail procedures and policies, as well as take complaints about jail conditions. A consultant hired in December to create a feasibility study for a new jail must consult with the board, under contract bid specifications.

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

Legislature Chairwoman April Baskin last month asked the board to review every jail death going back four years after receiving a letter from the state Commission of Correction, which instructed her to determine the fitness of jail health care providers. The commission was responding to the death of an inmate from cancer. 

Eight inmates, including seven since Garcia took office, have died during the past four years, with causes ranging from water intoxication to natural causes, according to the attorney general’s office and media reports. The death toll since 2005 stands at 39. A jury last month awarded $100 million to the family of Richard Metcalf, a holding center inmate who died in 2012. At least four other jail-death lawsuits are pending.

Absences also are preventing the board from doing business. At least three board members have missed at least one of three meetings this year. 

Board member Orlando Dixon said he’s missed the last three meetings because his wife was going through a difficult pregnancy. Now that the child has been born, Dixon said he’ll start attending meetings, which are held via Zoom.

“Accountability and transparency is part of the main reason I’m on the board,” said Dixon, who says he was tapped about a year ago by Tim Meyers, the legislature’s Democratic majority leader. 

“This is the people’s money. They need to know why it’s spent and how it’s spent. When anybody dies, anywhere in the world, we need to know why, especially when they are in a government facility.”

Dixon said that no one has contacted him to inquire why he has missed meetings.

Even with a quorum, the board hasn’t always functioned smoothly.

Former chairwoman Cindi McEachon, chosen by the legislature’s Republican caucus, resigned about a year ago, after clashing with some colleagues. Former board member Baba Eng said McEachon was too close to the sheriff’s office and had a conflict of interest because Peaceprints of WNY, a nonprofit she heads, gets county money for providing reentry programs to inmates. He also said that Johnson engineered his removal from the board after he criticized the legislator at a community meeting.

“There were definitely trust issues,” said Eng, who is married to Amin, the woman seeking appointment to the board. “People have to trust each other if they’re going to work together.”

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McEachon said Peaceprints had contracts to provide services to inmates before the legislature created the board in 2019, and legislators knew it. Criticism from fellow board members hurt, she said.

“I felt like I was being publicly attacked,” McEachon said. “I resigned from the board because I saw it imploding on itself. I did not want to be part of that.”

The board now doesn’t have a chairperson.

“Her resignation sort of came as a shock,” said Bryan Fiume, chief of staff for the legislature’s Republican caucus. “That required us to sort of sit down and talk to her.”

Two months after McEachon left, the legislature confirmed Ryan for the seat chosen by the Republican caucus.

“It’s not a normal board, it’s not always a happy board,” Fiume said. “The more serious the issue, the more passionate people get, and sometimes that passion creates dysfunction.”

The board’s next scheduled meeting is May 28.

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