Jul 10


More drama with jail advisory board

The Erie County sheriff has pulled his staff from participating in the panel's meetings. The withdrawal follows a period of dysfunction and the appointment as chairman of an outspoken critic of jail operations.

Erie County Sheriff John Garcia. Photo by Garrett Looker.

The Erie County Sheriff’s Department has pulled staff from meetings of a jail advisory board, citing the body’s inability to raise quorums and an adversarial tone from some members.

The withdrawal came after Jerome Wright, a former inmate who’s been critical of the sheriff’s office, was elected chairman to the board that’s been tasked with reviewing jail deaths and operations.

“This is a disingenuous attempt to go out like a punk instead of standing your ground,” said Wright, who has opposed the sheriff’s push for a new jail and says he wants subpoena power to get information from the sheriff. “You’re supposed to be a progressive sheriff. As soon as it’s (the board is) reconstituted so it doesn’t reflect the majority of the people you want, you divorce yourself from it.”

Jail brass had been attending monthly meetings of the board, which has struggled to conduct business because members, including those appointed by the sheriff and confirmed by the legislature, aren’t showing up for meetings conducted via Zoom. 

County Legislature Chairwoman April Baskin, who pushed for the board’s creation in 2019 and appointed Wright to the body, said the board hasn’t lived up to expectations.

“I’m actually very disappointed,” said Baskin, who asked the board in April to review all jail deaths during the past four years, after the state Commission of Corrections raised concerns about jail health care. “What does he want subpoena power for? I don’t have issues getting information out of the sheriff’s office. There’s no need to use subpoenas. … You use subpoena power when people refuse to come forth. They’re not refusing to come forth.”

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In a June 25 letter to county legislators and the advisory board, Michael Phillips, superintendent of the sheriff’s jail management division, wrote that neither he nor other sheriff’s officials will attend meetings. If the board has questions for the sheriff’s office or concerns, Phillips wrote, it should communicate via email “and we will ensure an appropriate and timely response.” 

“Sadly, I have concluded that participating in the monthly meetings have (sic) been counterproductive and not a good use of time,” Phillips wrote.

Phillips and Thomas Diina, former jail superintendent who is now head of reentry programs, have attended most board meetings and delivered reports on staffing, substance abuse programs and other jail programs, even when a quorum isn’t present.

In his letter written two weeks after Wright was elected chairman, Phillips wrote that “the tone of meetings has gradually become more adversarial amongst some board members towards (sic) the sheriff’s office.”

The board has a tumultuous history. It went more than a year without a chair since former chairwoman Cindi McEachon resigned last year, after Wright and other critics of the sheriff’s office questioned whether she should be on the panel, given she heads a reentry nonprofit that holds a contract with the sheriff’s office.

Wright has threatened to resign from the board more than once, most recently at the June 11 virtual meeting during which he was elected chairman. His colleagues elected him after he left the meeting following a discussion on whether a vote on electing a chair should be delayed.

“We can’t agree to disagree and get anything done,” Wright told colleagues before leaving. “My reputation is attached to this. We’re not going to move forward today, I will remove myself from this. I will do what I have to do on my own.” 

Wright also has questioned why sheriff’s officials who aren’t on the board have attended. He’s voiced skepticism at the purpose of reports on such topics as staffing, cameras and addiction treatment.

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“We can’t ascertain whether their numbers are real,” Wright told Investigative Post. “I was going to ban them from those (board) meetings. Not permanently. If you have something you want to say to the community, submit it five days in advance.”

Board member Michael Deal, who is director of the criminal defense unit at the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo, said he thought reports from jail brass were helpful and hopes the sheriff’s department will reverse the decision to stop attending meetings.

But the board, Deal said, is supposed to be independent and determine when there is room for improvement.

“To tout all the good things you’ve been doing, that’s great,” Deal said. “Our task can involve pointed, hard questions. … We are going to provide oversight and advice.”

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