In Erie County, Jail Deaths Continue Despite High-Profile Tragedy
The death of 27-year-old India Cummings in 2016 garnered national media attention and a renewed push by local activists over conditions of confinement in the New York county’s jails. But the deaths haven’t stopped.
Raina Lipsitz Jan 16, 2020
Editor’s note: The reporter’s aunt, Nan Haynes, and father, John Lipsitz, represented plaintiffs against Sheriff Timothy Howard in 2010 and 2006. Haynes was also a plaintiff in a 2017 lawsuit compelling Howard to properly document and report prisoner suicide attempts. John Lipsitz was cooperating counsel on the New York Civil Liberties Union’s 2014 lawsuit against the Erie County sheriff’s department for Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) violations.
On July 31, 2019, Connell Burrell collapsed at the Erie County Holding Center in downtown Buffalo, New York. A slightly built 44-year-old man with Type 2 diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Burrell had served just 12 hours of a 15-day sentence on a disorderly conduct charge when he crumpled to the floor. He was eventually transported to Buffalo General Medical Center; by the morning of Aug. 2, he was dead.
Although there has been no official finding in Burrell’s death—the New York State Commission of Correction is still investigating—he appears to have died from medical neglect. His blood sugar spiked before jail employees administered a dose of insulin, then it dropped to dangerously low levels. Jail medical staff gave him a peanut butter sandwich in an effort to drive his blood sugar level back up. But the sandwich, which Burrell was too sick to chew or digest properly, impeded attempts by ambulance medics to force air into his lungs. A jail nurse was later fired over Burrell’s treatment.
Burrell was living with his younger sister and her children at the time of his death. Another sister, Monica Lynch, told The Appeal that Burrell was “more of a father figure than an uncle” to his little sister’s children: “He stepped in, played with them, took them to the bus stop, picked them up after school sometimes.” Burrell also had a child of his own, a boy who turned 17 in November.
Despite struggling with physical disability, alcoholism, and the early loss of his mother, Lynch said her brother was “a nice, considerate person, willing to do anything for anyone.”
On average, one person dies every six months in Erie County jails. The Erie County Holding Center in downtown Buffalo has a 638 person capacity and processes over 20,000 people each year. The Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden, New York, can hold approximately 884 people. Since the appointment and subsequent election of Sheriff Timothy Howard in 2005, 30 people have died in the county’s jails. In 2019, four people died: Joseph Bialaszewski, 29, in July; Burrell in August; Daniel Spicola, 40, in September; and Robert Ingalsbe, 33, in October. Ingalsbe and Spicola appeared to have died by suicide.
When the county legislature submitted Freedom of Information Law requests to the state Commission of Correction last summer, it uncovered two more 2005 deaths that occurred during Howard’s tenure: Erie County Correctional Facility prisoners Nathan Frailey and Daniel McNeil. The commission, however, redacted the cause of death in these cases, as well as details surrounding the June 17, 2005 death of Ethel Ridgeway at the correctional facility. Ridgeway died about one week before Howard was appointed sheriff in late June 2005.
Every Wednesday since 2009, local activists have gathered, usually in front of the holding center, to protest the conditions in Howard’s jails. “There are times when there have only been four or five of us, and times when there are 20,” Karima Amin, founder and director of the Buffalo-based advocacy group Prisoners Are People Too, told The Appeal. “Most people don’t know or care until something big happens or it ends up on their front porch.”
As of January 2018, Erie County taxpayers spent nearly $2.5 million settling lawsuits that arose from deaths, injuries, and illnesses at its jails. A February 2018 report by the Commission of Correction found Erie County jails to be among the “most problematic local correctional facilities in the state.” The commission is investigating the deaths of Burrell, Spicola, Ingalsbe, and Bialaszewski. Burrell’s sister told The Appeal her family is in the process of filing a lawsuit. The father of 33-year-old Michael Girard, who hanged himself in the holding center in May 2018, filed a wrongful death suit against against Erie County and Sheriff Howard in May 2019.
Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn’s office has not investigated a death in a county jail since Flynn was elected in 2016 because one of his prosecutors is married to a sheriff’s deputy. In 2018, Flynn recused his office and asked the state attorney general to investigate the 2016 death of 27-year-old India Cummings at the holding center. (The attorney general’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the status of that investigation.)
A spokesperson for the DA’s office wrote in an email to The Appeal that she is “not aware of any investigations into deaths in Erie County jails prior to DA Flynn taking office.” In February 2019, Cummings’s family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against dozens of sheriff’s office employees, claiming that “the above-captioned Sheriff Deputies, Sergeants, and Lieutenants assigned to observe Cummings literally watched her die.”
Under the state Constitution, Governor Andrew Cuomo has the power to remove sheriffs from office, and in October, a group of activists called for Howard’s removal. The governor’s office did not respond to repeated requests from The Appeal for comment.
Howard was re-elected in 2009, 2013, and, by a slender margin, in November 2017. He will be up for re-election in 2021. The Appeal asked the sheriff’s office about the conditions of confinement in Howard’s jails, the continuing deaths there, and the multiple lawsuits over those deaths. Scott Zylka, a sheriff’s office spokesperson, declined to comment and referred requests for comment on litigation to the county attorney’s office.
The county attorney declined to comment and referred The Appeal to the county executive’s press secretary, Peter Anderson. Anderson wrote in an email that “while we cannot and would not speak on behalf of the Sheriff’s office, we can say that the condition of [Erie County] jails meets all New York State Commission of Corrections standards. Our administration is responsible for the administration of forensic mental health services at the Erie County Holding Center and the jail (2 separate facilities) and we have increased investment in that area to provide the best mental health services possible, including building a new re-entry Hub as part of our forensic mental health division location next to the Holding Center.” Asked about the seven lawsuits filed against Sheriff Howard in 2019 alone, Anderson noted that not all of the lawsuits were “jail-related.” (four of the seven are related to events that allegedly occurred in an Erie County jail.)
In an October interview, Howard cited a Department of Justice report that found his jails were in substantial compliance on security and correctional health. “Despite the deaths of certain inmates,” he said, “we have done our part to try to prevent that from happening.” He also said that half the deaths in his jails are suicides and “the person most responsible for a suicide is the person that commits the suicide.”