By Nan L. Haynes, Karima Amin and Charles Culhane
On April 10, the Erie County Legislature took the “Community” out of the Erie County Community Corrections Advisory Board, by removing from it the very same voices that had led to its establishment.
Fighting to bring about humane and professional treatment for prisoners in our county jails, community groups stood vigil outside the Erie County Holding Center in blizzards and in heat waves, and they showed up in large numbers to speak to the Legislature. Their persistence paid off when, in 2010, the Legislature established the board. Its stated mission was to bring together representatives of the community and elected officials, to work collaboratively with the Sheriff’s Office to improve conditions at our jails and to facilitate communication between the Sheriff’s Office and the community.
To start, the Legislature invited each of these community groups to the table: Aid to Indigent Prisoners, the criminal law/civil rights bar, the Hispanic community, Alternatives to Incarceration and a prisoners’ rights group. Elected officials and the Sheriff’s Office were represented, as were jail employees and other county offices. All served without compensation.
The collaboration worked. After working together for about six months the members found common ground and passed two resolutions to improve conditions for both prisoners and deputies. There was just a single “no” vote and a single abstention.
Then the Legislature voted into office last November assumed power. In a county with significant economic, employment and infrastructure challenges, among its first orders of business was to carve up and reassemble this volunteer board. Not a single community group retained its guaranteed seat at the table, nor did the union that represents the sheriff’s employees. In contrast, the Sheriff’s Office and our elected officials did just fine; each one maintains its guaranteed seat.
Most disturbing is the Legislature’s stated rationale for the new formulation as an “opportunity to include representation from stakeholders not included in the original formulation.” It’s dishonest and cowardly. It’s dishonest since the Legislature cut the “community” from the Erie County Community Corrections Advisory Board because it does not want to hear from the community. It’s cowardly because it hides behind unidentified “stakeholders” who had allegedly been excluded.
Let’s be honest, with no community presence, it’s not the Erie County Community Corrections Advisory Board. It’s a cheerleading squad for the sheriff.
Nan L. Haynes is a lecturer in law, legal analysis, writing and research at the University at Buffalo Law School. Karima Amin is founder and director of Prisoners Are People Too. Charles Culhane is a co-chairman of the Erie County Prisoners’ Rights Coalition.