NLG Buffalo Demands Answers from County Sheriff Misclassifying Inmate Suicides

By Dominick Roa ’19 & Suzanne Starr ‘19, NLG Buffalo
SUNY Buffalo Law Civil Liberties and Transparency Clinic

In February of this year, the New York State Commission on Correction named Erie County’s two jails among the five “worst offenders” in the State when it comes to inmate mental health treatment, suicide prevention, and excessive use of force. This black mark comes seven years after Erie County was sued by the federal Department of Justice for widespread constitutional violations at the jails and a suicide rate five times the national average.

Among the many disturbing practices at the jail is a pattern of concealing and mischaracterizing suicide attempts by inmates in the Sheriff’s custody. When inmates were found hanging in their prison cells from bedsheets, the Sheriff’s Jail Management Division classified the incidents as “inmate disturbances” or, perhaps, “manipulative gestures.” By doing this, the Sheriff’s staff evaded its legal obligation to report suicide attempts and inmate self-harm tp the state Commission. Indeed, this is precisely what the Commission found when it investigated this issue last summer, following reports in the local press.

The NLG’s Buffalo Chapter has long been working to improve conditions in the Erie County Jails and caught wind of this practice even before it was reported in the press. The Chapter teamed up with student attorneys in the Civil Liberties and Transparency Clinic at the University at Buffalo School of Law to file freedom of information requests last spring, seeking to investigate the concealed suicide attempts. The Sheriff’s Office simply ignored the request, failing to produce even a single document over the course of nearly 11 months.

Last month, the Buffalo NLG filed suit to enforce the freedom of information requests and demand genuine transparency about the full scope of the Sheriff’s misreporting and concealment of attempted suicides. Even though local news reports and the Commission have now shone some light on the issue, there is still plenty of reason to believe that the Sheriff is not being candid about the horrors that transpire in the jail. For example, just a few months after the state Commission ordered the Sheriff’s office to report all suicide attempts, a Buffalo News report revealed that Erie County Correctional Facility employees who summoned an ambulance for an inmate who had hanged himself described the incident to responders as an “airway obstruction,” rather than a suicide, even though the inmate was found with no pulse, no respiration and was unresponsive. The inmate was declared dead at the scene.

Even more recently, the Sheriff himself suggested, in response to questions from a reporter, that he continues to believe that suicide attempts are often “manipulative gestures”—an effort merely to seek attention—and that he is not willing to label such incidents as attempted suicides. This directly contradicts the Commission’s order that the Sheriff must report all suicide attempts and that the supposed intent of the inmate is irrelevant.

This Sheriff’s Office is allergic to transparency and accountability. The Buffalo NLG hopes that the court will compel the Sherriff to do his legal duty, and thus be transparent and accountable to the people he is meant to serve. The Chapter also hopes that it will shed more light on the ongoing misconduct and mismanagement at the County jails. ■