NLG-Buffalo Members Win Lawsuit Requiring Accurate Reporting of Serious Jail Incidents

[Content note: The article below mentions suicide.]

By Drew Friedfertig, NLG-Buffalo

As attorneys on the left, we know that each of us has a responsibility to use our legal training and skills to help the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society to fight back against systemic oppression and a legal system geared toward profit, not people. Other workers within that system have other responsibilities; for some, the requirement is simply to keep people alive and well so that they can stand trial. In New York, the Erie County Sheriff’s Department (ECSD), under Sheriff Tim Howard, has failed to uphold that responsibility dozens of times.

Howard is a Republican who has heavily courted the suburban and rural residents of Erie County, and who has come under fire in recent years for giving a speech while in his sheriff’s uniform at a pro-Trump, anti-immigration rally attended by firearm advocates and white supremacists, after which he release a public statement equating Black Lives Matter activists to supporters of the Confederate States of America. Since taking office in 2005, an average of two inmates have died per year at the Erie County Holding Center, which is under the management of Howard and the ECSD. Several of these deaths have been by suicide, and many other inmates have attempted suicide. How many, however, is uncertain. Local community groups, including the NLG-Buffalo, have long suspected that Howard’s department has been inaccurately reporting suicide attempts as “manipulative gestures”.

Assisted by NLG-Buffalo and one of our member attorneys, Anna Marie Richmond, four former members of the Erie County Community Corrections Advisory Board (including NLG-Buffalo member Nan Haynes) have successfully sued Howard’s department under Article 78, a statutory procedure allowing, amongst other things, for citizens to petition the court to mandate a state actor to comply with their legal duties. Since the dissolution of the CCAB in 2014, there has been little supervision of Howard’s department, not least of which because he has apparently refused to comply with the requests of the New York State Commission on Corrections. This is the body charged with overseeing his management of the Erie County Holding Center and the Erie County Correctional Facility, which in 2017 ordered him to follow the laws regulating his department. Now the court has become involved, and further refusals by Howard and his department can be met with fines and other court-ordered responses.

This is a victory for the community, and hopefully will soon be bolstered by another. NLG-Buffalo is the petitioner in a second lawsuit against Howard’s department, which has refused to comply with the Freedom of Information Law by holding back from the public incident reports which would reveal how suicide attempts and other events have been written up and categorized. While the ECSD claims this would violate inmate privacy, there have been too many incidents of reports made to the Commission on Corrections that have later been found false or inaccurate to allow the department to continue to operate in secrecy. That agency has rated the facilities under Howard’s control as amongst the worst in the state; with luck, the ongoing legal actions against them may contribute to changing this dire situation. ■