A push for an independent ombudsman for Erie County’s two jails is on hold as county lawmakers give new jail leadership a chance to follow through on promises to improve transparency and communication with the community.
A citizens advisory board had asked county lawmakers to create a new job that would work independently of the Sheriff’s Office to review complaints about the Erie County Holding Center in Buffalo and the Correctional Facility in Alden, but the proposal had lingered for months with little action.
Now, the chairman of the Legislature’s Public Safety Committee said that a new jail superintendent focused on “a greater level of transparency” has convinced him that an ombudsman isn’t necessary. County lawmakers, however, have left open the possibility that the proposal could move forward in the future.
“I appreciate the hard work put in by the Corrections Advisory Board in examining the ombudsman position, but at this time I feel it is not required,” said Legislator Timothy R. Hogues, a Buffalo Democrat who is chairman of the Public Safety Committee. “If there is a need to discuss the matter of an ombudsman in the future, we will do so.”
Hogues said work remains to improve the jails, but he was encouraged by the progress since the appointment of Thomas Diina as jail superintendent. He said Diina had “already raised the level of expectation of the Division of Jail Management” by promising to improve transparency, implement additional programs for inmate welfare and ensure an efficient grievance process.
Diina has overseen the jails since June, but was formally appointed last month to replace former jail superintendent Robert A. Koch Jr.
Koch left the job after admitting he gave false information for a police report about vandalism to his county-issued car.
Hogues said Diina had improved communication with the Community Corrections Advisory Board and with legislators.
“We’re committed to being accessible to the community,” Diina said. “We’re committed to investigating complaints and issues.”
The state Commission of Correction oversees a formal grievance process for the county jails. Those grievances are reviewed through a hierarchy that starts with the deputies and ends with an appeal to the state commission. In addition to that, Diina said, the community can lodge complaints through several avenues, including contacting the state commission, his office or two community liaisons employed by the Sheriff’s Office.
Legislature Chairwoman Betty Jean Grant said she will request that the ombudsman request and several related proposals remain on the table.
“I think there is still further discussion and further action that needs to be developed around some of them,” said Grant, a Buffalo Democrat. “That advisory board spoke and I will listen to what they have to say.”
Grant is also exploring a proposal that would clarify how the Sheriff’s Office spends money it makes off of inmate telephone calls.
Nan L. Haynes, vice chairwoman of the advisory board, said the proposal to create an ombudsman has helped spark greater dialogue about the needs at the jail. She said the board is now focused on discussing what types of inmate welfare and rehabilitation programs could be added at the two facilities.
“If Legislator Hogues is correct and this is leading to greater transparency and accountability from jail management,” Haynes said, “then the proposal has set out to do what it is supposed to do.”