Members of a community advisory board formed to ensure the humane treatment of Erie County inmates are blasting the Republican-controlled County Legislature over changes to the panel that board members say are aimed at muzzling potential critics of the Sheriff’s Office.
The changes in how board members are selected could give the Sheriff’s Office – which already is represented on the board by Jail Superintendent Thomas Diina – a second voice on the board.
The Community Corrections Advisory Board was empaneled in 2010 by the Legislature in response to community complaints over a rash of inmate suicides at the Erie County Holding Center and charges of abuse by jail guards. Nan L. Haynes, chairwoman of the advisory board, said a reconfiguration of the panel that was approved by the Legislature on April 10 effectively ensures that community representation on the board is diminished while public officials are added who might be more inclined to protect the status quo.
Haynes said the board was created in response to community pressure. She said it was “not the mayor and not the commissioner of mental health. These were community people who were out there advocating for this.”
On April 10, the Legislature voted, 10-1, to reduce the board from 15 to 13 members. Democrat Patrick B. Burke of South Buffalo cast the only dissenting vote. In addition to shrinking the board, the resolution called for changes in how members are selected.
Four county lawmakers – the chairman, both the majority and minority leaders and the chairman of the Public Safety Committee – are each guaranteed the right to make a recommendation. Also getting to make one pick each are the county executive, the superintendent of the county’s Jail Management Division and the commissioner of health.
The remaining recommendations will come from six out of 12 different entities or individuals. Ultimately, which six get to make recommendations will still be determined by lawmakers. In the past, Haynes said, three separate community groups working on behalf of prisoners’ rights were each guaranteed the right to make a recommendation.
“The Legislature can say, well, those groups are still able to get a seat, but the fact is they are no longer guaranteed a seat,” Haynes said. “So, it’s disingenuous. I mean, the whole thing stinks.”
Legislature Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca, said the aim of the reconfiguration was to expand opportunities for members of the community to get on the board.
“Before, it was kind of a political process. Now, we have people that can be there from victim’s rights, the mayor of the City of Buffalo. The sheriff gets a recommendation and so do nonprofit organizations (and) the commissioner of mental health,” Lorigo said.
“All of these different groups have a stake in what happens with the jail. Allowing for the Legislature to make appointments based on these recommendations does open it up to the community and makes it a more equal process,” he added.
Haynes, however, insists it will do the opposite, noting the possibility that Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard, who is ultimately responsible for the jails, may get to make a recommendation.
“He always had the superintendent of jails represented ... and they arranged it so that he could have another choice, right up against the community groups,” Haynes said.
“All I can do is hope that what the Legislature did – whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or Independent – you find it as disgusting as I do," she added.