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New York Sheriff Loses Lawsuit, Must Report Serious Prisoner Incidents to State Agency

by Chad Marks

A sheriff in Western New York, on the losing end of a lawsuit filed by four citizens, must report serious prisoner incidents to the New York State Commission of Correction.

Sheriff Timothy B. Howard oversees the Erie County Holding Center, one of the five worst jails in the state according to the Commission. Since 2005, over 20 people have died at the holding center. One, India Cummings, a 27-year-old jail prisoner, died in 2016; according to state officials, both her mental and physical health deteriorated over the 16 days she was held at the facility.

Cummings’ mother attempted to see her daughter on numerous occasions but was told she refused the visits. Her mother’s attorney notified a judge on February 16, 2016 that Cummings needed medical help. The judge agreed, ordering her moved to a hospital. The next day she was rushed to Buffalo General Medical Center, where she died four days later.

The Commission of Correction issued a report finding the medical and mental health care provided to Cummings at the jail was “so grossly incompetent and inadequate as to shock the conscience,” and that her death “should be ruled as a homicide due to medical neglect.” Cummings’ family filed suit against Erie County and jail staff in February 2019.

Cummings was not the only person to die due to inadequate medical care. A 42-year-old prisoner, Robert J. Henchen, died in 2007 after jail staff did nothing despite knowing for weeks that he was not sleeping, eating or taking his prescribed medications. Malnutrition, dehydration and renal failure were found to be factors contributing to his death. The Commission of Correction found Henchen received “negligent and incompetent” care at the jail; his widow filed a lawsuit that settled for $49,995.

Other prisoners have experienced brutal violence at the Erie County Holding Center. One was beaten to death by a fellow prisoner, while another prisoner who had unsuccessfully sought protective custody was beaten into a coma. In 2012, prisoner Richard A. Metcalf, Jr. died due to strangulation after jail guards tied a spit mask around his neck.

Further, one female prisoner and three young male prisoners committed suicide at the holding center. In 2017, jail officials began labeling suicide attempts “individual inmate disturbances,” according to local news reports; as such, the jail did not report them to the Commission of Correction. 

The infamous escape of Ralph “Buckey” Phillips from the jail in 2009 occurred during Howard’s tenure; while on the lam, Phillips fired shots at law enforcement and killed a state trooper. 

It is apparent that adequate security to ensure prisoners’ safety and necessary medical care have been lacking under Sheriff Howard’s direction. 

Now, following a November 2018 ruling by Supreme Court Justice Mark A. Montour, the sheriff has to report serious incidents involving prisoners at his jail to the Commission of Correction. Failure to do so could result in Howard being held in contempt of court. 

“The judge’s decision is a victory for the citizens of New York State,” declared Nan Haynes, one of the four citizens who filed the lawsuit, “because it means that government officials are not above the law. And it means that when government officials, such as Sheriff Howard, fail to execute their legal duties, concerned citizens can step in and ask a court to order them to follow the law.”

The other three plaintiffs included Reverend Eugene L. Pierce, who formerly worked at the Erie County Holding Center; prisoners’ rights advocate Karima Amin; and Chuck Culhane with the Western New York Peace Center’s Prisoners’ Action Committee. 

County officials said they would appeal the court’s ruling. 

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Sources: wivb.com, theappeal.org, democratandchronicle.com, wgrz.com, buffalonews.com