An inmate at the Erie County Correctional Facility lost a tooth last week when he intervened in a fight between two corrections officers scrapping over a bag of chips, prison personnel told The Buffalo News.
The fight erupted April 21 in the Yankee Building, across the street from the jail's main campus in Alden. The building features open housing for prisoners considered to be lesser security risks. The inmate apparently had tried to break up the fight.
Jail supervisors suspended the two officers with pay, as the contract with the Civil Service Employees Association requires. Meanwhile, the sheriff's Professional Standards Unit began an investigation likely to produce disciplinary charges.
"The incident may have been between two officers, but it is an embarrassment to everyone in the Sheriff's Office who takes pride in their job and uniform," Undersheriff Mark N. Wipperman told The News. "Unfortunately, an incident like this really overshadows the professionalism and dedication that the vast majority of our jail management staff brings to work every day."
Wipperman said the disagreement began over "what appears to be the dissemination of food products." A source familiar with the event said a bag of potato chips somehow sparked the fight. He asked to remain unidentified because he lacks permission to disclose information about the facility.
Wipperman said the inmate told internal investigators that he got involved because he likes both officers and didn't want them to lose their jobs.
The inmate was taken to the prison infirmary and then Erie County Medical Center before being returned to the correctional facility, Wipperman said. He would not confirm that the inmate lost a tooth nor describe the extent of his injuries, citing federal privacy regulations.
Together, the two officers have about 55 years of experience.
Some co-workers are shaking their heads over the officers' lapse in judgment. They speculate that the fight indicates, to some degree, the stress on officers often forced to work double shifts to meet state-ordered staffing levels.
The Rev. Eugene L. Pierce, who served as the correctional facility's deputy superintendent from 1984 to 1997 and is now vice chairman of the Erie County Legislature's Community Corrections Advisory Board, said corrections officers are to provide a safe and secure environment for inmates.
But in a sign of the lax management within Sheriff Timothy B. Howard's Jail Management Division, Pierce said, an inmate was trying to provide a safe environment for the officers.
"It's an indication of a more serious problem, the problem being a lack of discipline on the part of corrections officers, and it is a reflection on the administration and its ability to correctively hold the officers accountable for their ways and actions," he said. "It has moved from inmates assaulting each other to corrections officers assaulting each other."
The panel Pierce serves on was set up in response to the problems at the county-run jails that have been highlighted by inmate grievances and lawsuits, the State Commission of Correction's inspections, a U.S. Justice Department investigation, a spate of inmate suicides, the escape of a dangerous inmate and the mistaken release of others.
Fights between prison guards are not unheard of. But those in the field said fights occur in parking lots after shifts, not in the prison.
Wipperman said nothing so far links the officers' fight to their stress levels. But personnel at both the correctional facility and the Erie County Holding Center in downtown Buffalo say the staff are strained by long workweeks caused by frequently mandated double shifts. The problem becomes most severe at the Holding Center in summer.
The correctional facility holds inmates sentenced to terms of one year or less. It also sets aside space for defendants when there is no room for them at the Holding Center.
The correctional facility, which can hold about 800 inmates, has had problems. Ralph "Bucky" Phillips escaped from there in 2006 by prying through the roof in an unguarded kitchen. He killed one state trooper, Joseph A. Longobardo, and injured two others during his months as a fugitive.
In 2009, a report by State Commission of Correction inspectors described the county penitentiary as a management-challenged prison where deputies abandon their posts, legitimate inmate grievances go nowhere, and would-be reforms move slowly. The inspectors were mostly focused on areas guarded by Teamsters-represented jail deputies supervising defendants who had spilled over from the Holding Center. Erie County's jail supervisors responded to the report swiftly with wholesale staff changes.
A State Commission of Correction spokesman said the agency intends to look into the April 21 fight, mainly to ask why it was not notified if an inmate was sent to a hospital for medical attention.
Meanwhile, Wipperman predicted serious discipline for the officers involved.
"The Sheriff's Office has a zero-tolerance policy against this type of staff conduct," he said. "I believe the forthcoming discipline will demonstrate that we will never accept this type of misconduct by any of our personnel."