May 29


Jail advisory board makes some progress

Oversight panel still waiting for three open seats to be filled, but was able make quorum and conduct business for the first time in months

Erie County Holding Center. Photo by Garrett Looker.

The Erie County Corrections Specialist Advisory Board made incremental progress Tuesday, mustering a quorum, barely, after failing to draw enough members to conduct business at its three previous monthly meetings.

Six members of the 11-seat board were present, exactly the number needed for a quorum. The board took two actions, approving minutes of past meetings that could not previously be voted on due to lack of members and setting a June 11 date for a special meeting to select a chair, a vice chair and a secretary, positions that have been vacant for months.

Created by the county legislature in 2019, the board is tasked with reviewing jail operations and policies, recommending improvements and hearing complaints. Under terms of a request for proposals, a consultant conducting a feasibility study for a new jail must consult with the board. County Legislature Chair April Baskin also has told the board to review jail deaths.

During Tuesday’s meeting, after Michael Phillips, superintendent of the sheriff’s jail management division, told the board that the National Commission on Correctional Health Care accredited the department’s jails on May 14, board member Jerome Wright asked how the jails gained accreditation despite the November death of William Hager, a correctional facility inmate who suffered from schizophrenia and died from water intoxication.

“I’d just like to know what you told them that would smooth that over,” Wright said. “That doesn’t seem right to me, in light of somebody with a mental health issue dying from water intoxication, that they would make this approval, not to mention other deaths that happened there.”

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Phillips, who is not on the board, provided few details.

“I don’t know exactly what they reviewed,” Phillips said. “It was very thorough. They awarded us full accreditation.”

When Wright asked for an update on Hager’s death, Phillips said he couldn’t comment. His Zoom audio — board meetings are held remotely — then began cutting out.

“You’re breaking up again,” Wright said. “But you can’t comment. OK, thank you.”

Baskin last month asked the county board to review jail deaths that have occurred during the past four years. There have been at least nine.

In her letter to the board, Baskin drew attention to Hager and James Ellis, whose terminal cancer went undiagnosed in 2021 until he was found unresponsive in the holding center and taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The state Commission of Correction criticized jail health medical care in a March report on Ellis’ death and told Baskin to examine the fitness of health care providers.

Three seats on the board are vacant. Sheriff John Garcia last week nominated Bishop Kim Moses, a department chaplain, to fill a vacancy reserved for the sheriff’s office. The county legislature must confirm nominations.

Jakai Harrison, communications director for the legislature, who has been acting as de facto board chairman but isn’t on the board, said that confirmation should come before the board’s next meeting. He said he expects the legislature’s public safety committee this week to consider a request from Karima Amin, executive director of Prisoners Are People Too, to join the board.

The Erie County Bar Association, which is supposed to nominate a member, hasn’t submitted a name to the legislature, Harrison told the board.

While the board awaits new members, county jails are facing issues aside from inmate deaths:

  • Phillips told the board that there are 40 staff vacancies at the holding center and 17 at the correctional facility, with new correctional officers not expected to be ready for duty until November. Forced overtime is expected, he said.

“It’s going to be a difficult summer,” he said.

  • Thomas Diina, chief of community reintegration for the sheriff’s department, told the board that peer-to-peer drug counseling was suspended last week due to two staff vacancies at Save the Michaels, a nonprofit social service agency that helps inmates with drug problems.

“They are looking to get them replaced so that we can get that back up and running again,” Diina said. “Hopefully, that will not take too long.”

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