Erie County Sheriff Dismisses Staff from Jail Advisory Board Meetings: Investigative Post

The Erie County sheriff has pulled his staff from the panel’s meetings, a move that comes after a period of dysfunction and the appointment of an outspoken critic of prison operations as chairman.

Erie County Sheriff John Garcia. Photo: Garrett Looker.

The Erie County Sheriff’s Office has pulled its employees from jail advisory board meetings, citing the body’s inability to achieve a quorum and the hostile tone of some members.

The recall came after Jerome Wright, a former inmate critical of the sheriff’s office, was elected chairman of a board tasked with monitoring prison deaths and operations.

“It’s a disingenuous attempt to come off as a punk instead of standing your ground,” said Wright, who has opposed the sheriff’s push for a new jail and says he wants the right to issue subpoenas to get information from the sheriff. “You should be a progressive sheriff. As soon as (the council) is reconstructed so that it doesn’t reflect the majority of the people you want, you’re going to disassociate yourself from it.”

Jail staff attended monthly board meetings, which struggled to conduct business because members, including those appointed by the sheriff and approved by the Legislature, failed to show up for meetings held via Zoom.

County Council Chairwoman April Baskin, who sought to create the council in 2019 and appointed Wright to its seat, said the council has fallen short of expectations.

“I’m really, really disappointed,” said Baskin, who in April asked the board to review all prison deaths over the past four years after the state Commission of Corrections raised concerns about prison health care. “What does he want to subpoena? I have no problem getting information out of the sheriff’s office. There’s no need to use subpoenas. … The subpoena power is for when people refuse to come. They don’t refuse to come.”

In a June 25 letter to county lawmakers and the advisory board, Michael Phillips, superintendent of the sheriff’s jail management division, wrote that neither he nor other sheriff’s officials will attend the meetings. If the board has questions or concerns for the sheriff’s office, Phillips wrote, it should communicate via email “and we will provide an appropriate and timely response.”

“Unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion that attending monthly meetings was (sic) unproductive and not a good use of time,” Phillips wrote.

Phillips and Thomas Diina, a former prison warden and now head of reintegration programs, attended most board meetings and provided reports on staffing, substance abuse programs and other prison programs, even when a quorum was not present.

In a letter written two weeks after Wright was elected chairman, Phillips wrote that “the tone of the meetings became progressively more hostile among some board members toward the Sheriff’s Office.”

The board has a tumultuous history. It has been more than a year without a chair, since former chair Cindi McEachon resigned last year after Wright and other critics of the sheriff’s office questioned whether she should be on the panel, given that she heads a nonprofit reintegration group that contracts with the sheriff’s office.

Wright has threatened to resign from the board more than once, most recently at a virtual meeting on June 11 where he was elected chairman. His colleagues elected him after he walked out of the meeting following a discussion about whether the vote on the chairman should be delayed.

“We can’t agree to disagree and do nothing,” Wright told colleagues before leaving. “My reputation is tied to this. We’re not moving forward today, I’m stepping down from this. I’m going to do what I have to do myself.”

Wright also questioned why sheriff’s officers who are not on the board attended the event, expressing skepticism about the purpose of the reports on topics such as staffing, cameras and addiction treatment.

“We can’t say whether their numbers are accurate,” Wright told Investigative Post. “I was going to ban them from those (board) meetings. Not permanently. If you have something to say to the community, you have five days notice.”

Board member Michael Deal, director of the criminal defense division at the Buffalo Office of Legal Aid, said he found the reports from jail staff helpful and hopes the sheriff’s department will reverse its decision to stop attending the meetings.

However, Deal said, the board should be independent and decide when there is room for improvement.

“It’s great that you’re praising all the good things you’ve done,” Deal said. “Our assignment may include specific, difficult questions. … We will provide oversight and guidance.”

published 40 seconds ago – July 10, 2024