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Thomas Thompson ought to buy a lottery ticket. With his luck, odds are he will cash in.

It looks as if the rogue guard at the Erie County Holding Center has once again sidestepped the full sledgehammer of justice. Despite a federal conviction for beating an inmate, Thompson will not just avoid prison, but will likely keep his job.

Is this a great country or what?

Wednesday's sentencing of the abusive guard to eight months at a halfway house, instead of up to a year in prison, spares him hard time and will likely ensure that he keeps his badge. U.S. Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder said he wanted to send a tough message about the consequences of guards abusing their authority. He instead sent a caramel-soft one.

Had the judge sentenced Thompson to jail, the guard would – obviously – not have been able to show up for work. Which presumably would have been grounds for dismissal. But Thompson can log time at the halfway house and still clock in for his Holding Center shift. Despite a federal conviction, he stays out of jail and keeps his job at the Holding Center. It's bizarre: a criminal guarding prisoners.

“The sentence allows him to keep working,” Sheriff Timothy Howard said, “which pretty much prevents any [dismissal] action by us.”

Howard said the county attorney will look into whether Thompson's guilty plea to federal charges of assaulting an inmate is grounds for firing. But he did not sound hopeful.

By not sentencing Thompson to prison, the judge indeed sent a message. He sent a message to every rogue jail guard that abuse does not cost you your badge or your paycheck. He sent a different sort of message to inmates: Duck and cover.

“It's frustrating, absolutely,” Howard said of Thompson's continued employment. “But we may have no choice but to accept it and move on.”

Three years ago, Thompson recruited a posse of underlings to pound information out of inmate Stephen Heilmann.

The off-the-leash guards first threatened Heilmann. When they came back the next day, Thompson told the information-shy prisoner he was going to get punched in the gut, and to pick a guard to deliver the blow. Apparently this is what passes for “freedom of choice” in the Holding Center.

Thompson was fired by Howard for leading the assault and then lying about it. But hold on. A logic-twisting arbitrator two years ago overruled Howard and reinstated Thompson.

The timing of Heilmann's beating told a larger tale. It happened when the downtown jail was in the midst of a U.S. Justice Department investigation for inmate abuse. Yet Thompson and Co. did not hesitate to pound Heilmann, further evidence of a culture of abuse at the Holding Center. Some guards felt they were above the rules they are paid to enforce.

So, yes, a message needed to be sent. Instead, a judge failed to bring the hammer down – and an abusive guard consequently dodged a second dismissal bullet.

So much for messages.

Thompson might want to think about buying that lottery ticket. Although, in a way, he already has hit the jackpot.

email: desmonde@buffnews.com