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    Conversations around change as death, suffering plague Erie Co. Holding Center

    Photo of Erie County Holding center with text "Under the current sheriff, at least 24 people have died at the Erie County Holding Center"
    Graphic made by Olivia King/Ithaca Week with Canva.

    Following the death of India Cummings in 2016, Buffalo activist and member of the Buffalo Anti-Racism Coalition Ivy Yapelli was arrested for peaceful protest. As a result, she spent time in both the Erie County Court building as well as the Erie County Holding Center. At the courthouse, Yapelli said she experienced intimidation and witnessed negligence of the deputies who failed to help another woman in the courthouse.
    “The woman in the cell next to me was moaning over and over, and it turned out she was very sick,” Yapelli said. “She was going through drug withdrawals and she was very sick. She kept calling for help and nobody was listening to her.”
    Though this occurred in the courthouse, not the holding center, Yapelli said sheriff’s deputies were involved. The sheriff is also in charge of the holding center, where she said she also experienced feelings of degradation and humiliation. However, she was never fully processed at the holding center and was able to leave. She said as a middle class white woman, she was most likely receiving the best treatment offered at the holding center.
    According to Spectrum News, 28 people have died in the holding center under Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard. Cummings was one of them. Half of the deaths have been suicides, others are the result of inmates’ underlying health conditions. In 2016,Cummings called 911 because she was in need of immediate mental health assistance. Instead of receiving that treatment, she was arrested on allegations of carjacking. She was held in the holding center for 17 days before being moved to the Erie County Medical Center, where she died.
    Her family sued 73 of the sheriff’s employees, claiming that they neglected to get her medical help that could have saved her life. On Oct. 2 the New York State Attorney General’s office concluded that her death could not be attributed to provable criminal conduct on the part of those responsible for her care during her incarceration. Amid national protests for Black Lives Matter, there are calls from activists for Howard to step down. There has also been emerging news about the possibility of the holding center closing. On June 2 Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz announced a plan to address a budget deficit that he said would effectively close the holding center and relocate inmates to the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden.
    Exterior of the holding center with a sheriff vehicle parked out front.
    Sheriff department car parked outside the Erie County Holding Center. There have been calls for Sheriff Howard to step down due to deaths and treatment of inmates at the holding center. Photo by Olivia King/Ithaca Week.
    In an interview with Spectrum News, Howard stated that some of the deaths in the holding center are due to individuals feeling like they are unable to return to the community, or lack of familial support. According to the article, Howard said those messages are not reported to staff and he wishes there was more he could do to prevent inmates from dying. He stated that the holding center is not a hospital and that the person most responsible for a suicide is the person committing it. He said he plans to finish out his term ending in 2021.

    Necessary Changes

    Phylicia Brown, executive director of Black Love Resists in the Rust (BLRR), said BLRR does not agree with the idea of moving the inmates in the holding center. If closed, inmates would be relocated to Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden.
    “We [BLRR] have wanted to close the holding center since our inception,” Brown said. “That has always been one of the key goals of our organization. However, we want to close the holding center because there’s been such a decrease in folks who are being arrested, not because the infrastructure is collapsing.”
    Exterior of the Erie County Holding Center, where at least 24 people have died under the Sheriff. Photo by Olivia King/Ithaca Week.
    Exterior of the Erie County Holding Center, where at least 24 people have died under the Sheriff. Photo by Olivia King/Ithaca Week.
    Brown said moving inmates to Alden will just put them further away from the people who care about them and would result in less eyes on the situation. She said if the holding center closed because it was deemed obsolete it would be a different conversation, but she does not support the relocation of inmates at the holding center. Brown said BLRR works from an abolitionist standpoint. She said the organization believes there needs to be an end to the carceral state because people do not belong in cages.
    As for Howard, Brown said that getting him out of office is a necessary step in the right direction. She said it is necessary for him to step down in order to see any change in the holding center. She also noted that the problems in the holding center are systemic and will not be solved just by Howard leaving office.
    “I do think it is necessary for Sheriff Howard to step down and be out of the seat,” Brown said, “… if we want to see any change … and we know issues are systemic and therefore we have to address the systemic issues as well.”
    She said systemic racism is why Howard has been allowed to continue in his position thus far.
    In 2017, Howard spoke at a political rally as part of a Spirit of America series. According to WBFO, the series was held all over the country, mainly supporting President Donald Trump. WBFO reported that there were confederate flags as well as white supremacist material being circulated at the rally.
    “Something we have to acknowledge in Erie County: that there are people voting for Sheriff Howard, knowing his stances, knowing who he supports,” she said, “… we have a problem with injustice and racism in our community.”
    Graphic showing that of the holding center's capacity of 638, only 168 spaces are occupied.
    Data via an inmate roster on the Erie County Sheriff website. Original graph by Olivia King made with Adobe Spark.


    Legislator Howard Johnson, chair of the Erie County Public Safety Committee, said he agrees that Howard leaving office would be a step in the right direction, as many of the issues in the holding center come down to accountability.
    Johnson supports the recently introduced “Jail Management Transparency and Accountability Act,” which would require the sheriff’s department to report deaths directly to legislators. He said this act would allow the legislators to have this information as soon as the sheriff does, which he said is necessary in order to determine accountability and how to proceed forward.
    According to the proposed act, currently the sheriff’s office is required to submit a report and documentation to the New York State Commission of Corrections when a prisoner or detainee dies or is injured while in custody. However, the sheriff’s office is not required to notify the local legislative body which has oversight responsibility for the actions of the county government and its officers, including the sheriff.
    “The legislature who approves the sheriff’s budget is the last to know,” Johnson said. “We find out about it through the news … we’re not getting that information.”
    Johnson is also supporting reform for section 50-a of the New York Civil Rights Law, which makes all “personnel records used to evaluate performance towards continued employment or promotion” for police officers, firefighters and correction officers confidential and not subject to inspection unless by court order.
    Johnson said officers with multiple offenses have been able to hide behind this section in the past and its repeal would make it easier to recognize bad actors to level the playing field.

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