By Nan L. Haynes and the Rev. Eugene Pierce
Two years ago, the Erie County Community Advisory Board recommended that the county appoint a person independent of the Sheriff’s Office to review complaints about our county jails. The recommendation was sent for discussion to the Public Safety Committee of the Erie County Legislature, chaired by Legislator Timothy Hogues.
Last year, Hogues tabled the board’s recommendation because, he believed, Thomas Diina, the current jail superintendent, brought a “greater level of transparency” to jail management. Fortunately, Hogues left open the option should the need arise. As members of the board, we believe it has.
The Legislature created the Community Advisory Board to offer suggestions on improving the programs and services at our jails. We can’t fulfill our mission unless we know exactly what programs and services are in place. Yet our requests for Diina to tell us what educational and rehabilitation programs are provided to prisoners have gone unanswered.
At our July meeting, Diina did bring with him a teacher from the GED program at one of the jails who thinks the program is a success even though only about 20 prisoners are currently enrolled. She could not tell us how many prisoners at the jail have not completed high school.
What she described does not sound like a success. Based on the jail population and the poor high school graduation rate in our area, a class of only 20 students seems exceedingly low. There are approximately 750 prisoners in the facility on any day. Since only 47 percent of students in Buffalo graduate from high school, there must be far more than 20 prisoners needing a GED program.
We are still in the dark about what, if any, other educational or vocational programs are offered to prisoners in Erie County jails. But we know that in Monroe County about 200 prisoners out of approximately 1,350 participate in adult education classes. They also participate in certificate training programs in landscaping and greenhouse operations, food service, plumbing and carpentry. When released, they are more likely to find a job, and less likely to re-offend and end up back in jail.
The problem isn’t Diina. It’s that he works for the Sheriff’s Office, which has long been resistant to change. So we hope that Hogues will put the board’s resolution back on the table. Effective educational and vocational programs reduce recidivism, thereby reducing the jail population and saving money.
Armed with clear answers to questions about what goes on inside our jails, the board can help the Legislature figure out how to implement programs and services that will save Erie County money. Without them, it can’t.
Nan L. Haynes is a member of the University at Buffalo Law School faculty. The Rev. Eugene Pierce is retired deputy superintendent of the Erie County Correctional Facility.