An Erie County, New York, Deputy Sheriff (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

After 30 jail deaths in 16 years, the sheriff election in Erie County, New York, could force a reckoning.

The jails in Erie County, New York, which have been run by Sheriff Timothy B. Howard since 2005, have been notorious for deplorable conditions that have led to dozens of deaths. But Howard, a Republican, is not seeking re-election this year, and criminal justice advocates are hopeful that this blue-leaning county, home to the city of Buffalo and nearly a million people, will elect a new sheriff to champion bold reforms and overhaul its jails.

The race was shaken up this week when local activist Myles Carter announced that he is running, eight months after he drew national attention when he was attacked by police. At a June protest against police violence in Buffalo, officers suddenly swarmed and tackled him from behind as he was being interviewed by a television news crew. The police arrested Carter, who is Black, and charged him with obstruction of government administration and disorderly conduct. According to the Erie County district attorney, the case was dismissed because the information the police provided did not support the charges.

“I’ve been exposed to the criminal justice system my entire life,” Carter told The Appeal: Political Report. He has had family members in jail and was in a detention facility himself after running away from an abusive foster home at age 12. Carter, who went on to graduate from college and start a home inspection company, added that he never forgot his upbringing. “When you come from poverty and your family is hurt and your community is hurt,” he said, “you just don’t feel complete when you’re in a space of success and everyone around you and everyone you care about is still down.”

Carter says he is running for sheriff to transform the office in ways that include banning solitary confinement, and keeping people with mental health issues from having unnecessary interactions with police, in part by routing mental health emergency calls to responders other than law enforcement.

But the field remains unsettled, and other candidates have until April 1 to officially enter the race. Until this week, advocates were unsure whether anyone would run on a bold reform agenda, and they are still anxiously awaiting new developments.

“What we need in that position is a really new approach to the sheriff’s department and to the incarceration of individuals in this county, because obviously what we have is not working,” Vicki Ross, executive director of the Western New York Peace Center and a longtime advocate of prisoners’ rights, told the Political Report. “People are dying,” she added. “People are killing themselves. People are getting medical maltreatment.”

Despite abundant evidence that Erie County jails under Sheriff Howard are unfit for human beings, efforts to remove him from office have proved fruitless. But Howard announced last month that he would not seek another term. Instead, he will seek the Republican and Conservative Party nominations for supervisor of Wales, a town of around 3,000 people in southeastern Erie County. That means voters will have a chance to elect a new sheriff in November, after a June primary that determines who is on the ballot. Candidates can qualify to run between Feb. 23 and April 1.

“The Erie County Sheriff’s Office has been a source of embarrassment for our community,” April Baskin, the Democratic chairperson of the county legislature—the state’s equivalent of a county board—said in an email to the Political Report. “With Sheriff Howard’s retirement, we have an opportunity for real reform. I am looking for a candidate who will rise to the challenge.”

In the last 16 years, at least 30 people have died after being detained in Erie County jails. According to the New York State Commission of Correction, these jails are among the “most problematic local correctional facilities” in the state. On average, one person dies every six months. Jean Dickson, a retired University of Buffalo librarian, has researched the many lawsuits that have arisen from prisoner deaths, injuries, and illnesses. She estimates that taxpayers spent approximately $4 million between 2005 and 2017 to defend or settle these cases.

People with manageable or no known medical conditions have died shortly after being admitted to Erie County jails. In 2019, Connell Burrell collapsed at the Erie County Holding Center in Buffalo. 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. Two days later, he was dead. In 2016, after experiencing  an apparent mental health crisis, 27-year-old India Cummings—who had no criminal history or previous contact with police, aside from minor vehicle and traffic infractions—was arrested and taken to the Erie County Holding Center. She died 20 days later.

Burrell and Cummings appear to have died from medical neglect, but many detainee deaths in Erie County are suicides. Speaking to Spectrum News in 2019, Howard said the proportion was around half. “We’re not a hospital,” he explained. “The person most responsible for a suicide is the person that commits the suicide.”

Sexual violations have also been pervasive in the jails. In recent months, two women detainees have alleged that an Erie County Holding Center sergeant—who once married a woman he met while she was incarcerated—made sexual advances toward prisoners. An internal investigation conducted by the sheriff’s office in 2018, but  recently uncovered by the Buffalo News, found that three officers had had inappropriate contact with women they met at the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden. Two admitted to having sexual relationships with prisoners after their release; the third contacted a former prisoner on social media. Other recently surfaced allegations include officers spying on prisoners while they shower, sexual contact between prisoners and officers (prisoners cannot consent to sexual activity with corrections officers under New York State law), and rape.

According to the Buffalo News, five other Democratic candidates have announced they will enter the race; unlike Carter, they all have extensive backgrounds working for law enforcement agencies. One of them, Kimberly L. Beaty, a former Buffalo Police Department deputy commissioner, is also seeking to run on the Working Families Party line.

Another, Michael F. Reardon, works under Howard as his first deputy supervisor of compliance and was embroiled in a scandal over sex discrimination. A judge ultimately found that one of the allegations against Reardron—that he retaliated against an employee for complaining about harassment from other staff members—wasn’t proven.

Most of these candidates are seeking the endorsement of the county Democratic Party, which could help them navigate the primary process and clinch the nomination. (Carter has said he is not seeking the endorsement.) Jeremy Zellner, chairperson of the county party, has said he will keep the need to overhaul the jails in mind when considering endorsement requests. Zellner told the Buffalo News that “we need a clean break from the administration” of Howard, who “ran a jail that has brought us national shame,” and noted that Reardon is “an appointee” of Howard.

Carter has so far been the most outspoken about the need for reform. He told the Political Report that solitary confinement is a tool used to “diminish and demean and break people,” including his own brother, and says he would ban its use in county jails.  He wants to crack down on sexual assault, and he’s pledging to not make arrests for any marijuana-related offenses. To take a different approach to mental health, he said he intends to hire people who are “already trained” in crisis intervention and trauma-informed care, such as social workers and other professionals with medical experience. More broadly, Carter wants to ensure that people do not leave jail only to re-enter lives of poverty, homelessness, and isolation. He’s seen firsthand how poverty can ensnare people in the criminal legal system; his mother was arrested and jailed for stealing groceries for her seven kids, an event that landed him in foster care and eventually juvenile detention.

On the Republican/Conservative side, there are three prospective candidates, including Steve Felano, a gun rights advocate with no experience in law enforcement who is vowing not to enforce any laws he deems unconstitutional, including state gun laws and coronavirus-related restrictions. He also told the Buffalo News he would use the power of the sheriff’s office to investigate the “Cuomo regime.” Karen Healy-Case, who recently warned against letting “the defund the police mob” take over “our” sheriff’s office, has also vowed not to enforce state gun laws. Healy-Case is married to a judge whose court often handles criminal cases referred by the sheriff’s office. Another candidate, John Garcia, is a retired Buffalo police officer whose donors include a gun rights group called the 1791 Society and the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association. Howard is backing Garcia.

Criminal justice advocates say Erie County desperately needs a reform-minded sheriff who will work with the county government to transform the jails, not another Howard associate. After Democrats took control of the county legislature in 2017, they resurrected a Corrections Specialist Advisory Board that sat dormant when Republicans were in charge. The board meets regularly to discuss jail management and the treatment of detainees. It includes appointees from the sheriff’s office, the county executive’s office, the legislature, and various community groups.

Baskin, the county legislature chairperson, has been instrumental in efforts to hold the sheriff’s office accountable and says the next sheriff needs to seriously consider the recommendations of the advisory board. They would need to understand “that there are deep-seated problems” with the way the sheriff’s office has been run and “put in the work to address those problems,” she said.

Howard’s office has not backed its words with action, said George BaBa Eng, an outreach specialist at the Community Health Center of Buffalo who serves on the board as a representative of the advocacy group Prisoners Are People Too. Eng recalled a recent meeting attended by Erie County Jail Management Division superintendent Thomas Diina, whom he described as “Tim Howard with a smile.” Eng said Diina has “a level of diplomacy that Tim Howard does not possess,” but with “the same core of racist, ultraconservative values that denigrate the value of human life, of prisoners in particular, and Black, brown, and poor white prisoners, specifically.”

Without the cooperation of the sheriff’s office, the board’s power is limited. Eng said the board should be able “to make sure that [sheriff’s department employees] who violate the law, who violate policy and procedure, are held to account.”

Ann Venuto, a retired psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner and educator who serves on the advisory board with Eng, echoed his frustration. She said that without subpoena or disciplinary power, it’s difficult to compel the sheriff’s office to share information, and to know how much to trust the information they are willing to share.

Venuto would like the next sheriff to take a compassionate approach to substance use disorder and mental health issues. She said Erie County jails and society at large would benefit from the introduction of medication-assisted treatment programs, crisis intervention and trauma-informed care training for officers, and an emphasis on restorative justice as opposed to retribution. That would mean treating opioid use disorder via a combination of medications, counseling, and behavioral therapies, and training officers to help people with mental health or addiction issues get the treatment they need and avoid jail. Nearby counties like Monroe and Niagara have successfully implemented these types of reforms, Venuto noted.

Howard defended his refusal to apply for state funding for medication-assisted treatment in 2019. “Offering government resources to continue with an addiction does not strike me as the best approach,” he said, adding that we’ve gone from prevention efforts to “supplying drugs for the individual that has chosen to continue to live a life of drug addiction.” His office did not respond to the Political Report’s request for comment.

To Eng, the sheriff election is not a matter of “[choosing] a lesser evil. As human beings, I don’t think we have to settle for that.” People everywhere, he said, deserve not only an end to brutality but “the best that we’re capable of creating.”

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.