I-Team: State report faults Erie County jails

Sheriff disputes poor ranking by state
Posted at 6:14 PM, Feb 14, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-14 18:14:06-05

Erie County is home to two of the "most problematic" local jails in New York State.

That's according to the State Commission of Corrections, which released a report Wednesday titled "The Worst Offenders -- The Most Problematic Local Correctional Facilities of New York State."

In the report, which was quickly disputed by sheriff's officials, Erie County's downtown Holding Center and its Correctional Facility in Alden are highlighted alongside notorious lockups like Rikers Island in New York City and jail systems in three other counties.

"We have a few problems with this," said spokesman Scott Zylka of the sheriff's office.

State officials blame Sheriff Timothy Howard and his deputies for "managerial shortcomings" that led to "inmate escapes, assaults, and deaths," including the 2010 escape of inmate Brian Collins, who climbed to the roof of the holding center, and the 2015 escape of inmate Thomas Walsh from Buffalo City Court.

It also makes reference to the controversial death of Richard Metcalf, who died in 2012 from traumatic asphyxia after deputies tied a spit mask around the man's neck and put a pillow case over his head. The report called that an "improper restraint technique."

"There was no criminal findings at all regarding this," Zylka said. "Our deputies acted in the spur of the moment, to protect lives of other inmates and certainly other deputies at the holding center."

The report also faulted the Sheriff's Office in its handling of mentally ill inmates, citing a 2014 death of a female inmate in which she "languished in a cell for over 10 days in an acute state of psychosis without any crisis psychiatric intervention or attempts to emergently hospitalize."

"It wasn't until January 2017 that the Division of Correctional Health came under the sheriff's responsibility," Zylka said. "We've made great strides in that and we've gotten great programs up."

Zylka said conditions have improved and the sheriff's office is now accredited. He said the report focuses too much on the past.

"The public is not receiving the proper image of that little snapshot in time," he said. "Why didn't they include instances from 1950 or '60 if that's their goal, to embarrass or make their report more shocking than it really is."

The report states the state must at the very least, ensure that jail conditions do not constitute "cruel and unusual punishment," which is "strictly outlawed" by the Constitution.