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Buffalo’s Death Row… County Jail?

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by Chris Stevenson

William Shakespeare would have thought Buffalo an amusing city, but he wouldn’t have stayed long. What with our legion of white democrats who practice or allow racism and corruption to go on, a black political body that has outsmarted itself out of power, and a quietly vindictive Machiavellian black Mayor only concerned with not making the city look bad before the rest of the nation, even Brutus himself would cower at the thought of hanging his toga in the City of Scheming Neighbors.

Were Harriet Tubman still alive she would be forced to re-route the Underground Railroad She simply would be taken aback by some of Buffalo’s black leaders outwardly embracing her and covertly selling her out. Tubman would have noted people like Sheriff Tim Howard and said ‘the enemy hasn’t changed a bit, but ‘what happened to the Negroes?’

Case in point is our county jails. At some point the people who run and work in them refuse to believe they are Holding Centers and fantasize they’re Ft. Leavenworth. Lost in a sea of abuse is the fact that the people locked in these facilities haven’t been convicted or proven guilty of any crime. No trial has ended, no deal has been made. IT’S COUNTY JAIL! Soooo… how is it that since 2003 there have been 9 deaths (alleged hangings), with 3 in the last 3 months? The answer lies within the mentality of the people who run it. Buffalo’s County law enforcement is an occupation almost exclusively for the most ignorant of white boys. Great work if you can find it. Back in July of ’09 the Department of Justice (DOJ) released a 50-page report on horrendous abuses and the glaring failure of 2 facilities in particular; Buffalo and Alden (a nearby rural town SE of Buffalo) to correct themselves. “We conclude that the conditions of confinement violate the constitutional rights of inmates.” Therein lies much of the problem, many residents in towns Bordering or around Buffalo simply don’t believe inmates have rights and sadly many of these same individuals have applied for these jobs looking to cross their opinions from their homes, past the town-line or into the workplace.

The party most responsible for these tragic episodes has to be the agency charged with direct oversight of the Erie County Holding Center; The Sheriff’s office, most notably Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard. Howard just won re-election last fall and has been in office since 2006. Though complaints have been voiced since the ’90’s, much of the incidents have occurred under his watch. In all cases of abuse and oppression it’s not the protagonist that makes the abuse drag on so long. It’s the people in key positions who refuse to speak up and the masses who refuse to unite to demand change, that allows these bad conditions to flourish.

In all honesty there has been significant protest from Buffalo’s local activists like Karima Amin of Prisoners are People Too, Charles Culhane, Charles Burgin and others over the last several months at both sites. What seems to be lacking is any verbal desire for heads to roll from any of Buffalo’s political groups or elected officials. No legislatures, no councilmen, no Assemblymen, no congressmen or State Senators. Buffalo’s black officials are usually conspicuous by their roaring silence, sure some of them may show up at forums, maybe even pitch in some cash, but most really hate to ruffles the collars of white decision-makers. Back in the fall a deputy was let go because he was blamed for a high-profile escape where the inmate made it to the roof and was filmed. Pressure from the above-mentioned activists may have led to the firings of 3 of Howard’s employees (2 Deputies, 1 Sgt.) for physically abusive behavior towards an inmate months ago. This is akin to a miracle, because it’s very hard for whites to fire whites, especially in race-paranoid, cynical Buffalo. Like Karl Rove, Buffalo’s blue collar white decision makers are grudging, scowling and admit no mistakes, transgressions or cover-ups. What would Shakespeare say? Buffalo Thy Cover-ups Runneth Over.

Strangely enough, the job description of the Sheriff is to maintain peace in all municipalities within his jurisdiction. This includes jails. In fact he is directly responsible for the “care and custody of persons pending court action.” Buffalo’s Sheriff office is larger than even New York City’s and the Boroughs and is the 14th largest in the nation. Buffalo’s Sheriff office wasn’t even accredited by the New York State Sheriff’s Association until 1986 and as a law enforcement agency until 1990 (the department was formed in 1821). This may explain some of the mentality going on among the office and it’s supporters; if you went almost 2 Centuries without having to answer to someone, why start answering to anyone now? Erie County Attorney Cheryl Green needs to come under scrutiny and sanctions too. She actually tried to bar the DOJ from inspecting these worsening facilities. According to the Buffalo News “These suicides have occurred in the facilities during Erie County’s refusal to grant access.” Howard’s rebuttal on the ECSO website says “‘The Erie County jails have five times the national rate as others,’ that’s a memorable soundbite. But that’s all it is-other than being completely and utterly false.”

If there is any indication at all of how tainted is the new normal in the ECSO’s office, I will disclose a little-known incident between a pregnant black woman and some of Howard’s deputies covered exclusively by Buffalo’s leading Black newspaper the Challenger. About a year ago (3/17/09) reporter Sabirah Muhammad began a series of articles on a then-7-mos-pregnant mother of two named Dorothea McDonald. This sister went to the downtown Rath building to obtain a new medical card, when sadly enough, a group of young black males began mocking and cursing her (as opposed to… well, helping her to her seat). In fact, they became so disruptive that Ms. McDonald called for security. Once the deputies arrived, reportedly they devoted more time towards abusing and disrespecting her, than securing the immediate situation at hand. A later stoy in the same paper (7/8/09) identified deputy Gary Mosier as the officer acting too freely with his hands against McDonald, pushing her into a chair and then a row of chairs, elbowing her in the stomach, tossing her face-first into a wall near the elevator. Muhammad’s piece quotes McDonald complaining of contractions with an officer responding that she was “full of shit.”

Predictably McDonald was arrested and given several charges relating to resisting and obstruction, during the resulting trial Deputy Mosier actually testified that he was “hip-checked (Was there a Sabres game the previous night?).” This story is not for the weak of heart, but is only exceeded by the unapologetic behavior of Undersheriff Richard Donovan during a meeting I was invited to attend along with several other community activists weeks before the trial. Howard wouldn’t even grant us the dignity of showing up, my purpose was nothing less than getting the charges against Ms. McDonald dropped and demand a 2-week suspension without pay for Mosier. Once I brought this up at this meeting that goofy grin on Donovan’s face disappeared immediately. He wasn’t getting on my page at all, miraculously McDonald won, twice over basically (the first trial was deadlocked, the 2nd trial Not Guilty) with attorney Anthony Pendergrass representing her. It was a concurrent lesson in “Yes We Can” for some of our activists and an all-too-rare “No You Can’t” towards Buffalo downtown law enforcement, whom virtually reign undefeated in cases against blacks.

A source close to the Sheriff’s Department says the deaths aren’t Howard’s fault, but rather a byproduct of decisions made by Green and County Executive Chris Collins; both of whom are cited as the blockers of funding to improve conditions that Howard wants as well as the DOJ from gaining access until just recently. Cry me a river, I have yet to hear of any disciplinary action against Mosier. If Green and Collins are holding Sheriff Howard back, then he’d better make this known quickly and often instead of complaining about the DOJ and the newspapers. Because contrary to popular opinion around Erie County, these inmates haven’t been found guilty of anything outside of compartmentalized conservative opinion. On a larger scale Howard, Collins and Green seem to have figured out a way to try, rule, sentence and imprison the county with, at the very least laziness and incompetence and at worst negligence, outright brutality and murder.

Chris Stevenson is a syndicated columnist, his articles also appear in the Buffalo Challenger. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, you don’t have to join either. Respond to him on the link below.

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1 Comment on "Buffalo’s Death Row… County Jail?"

  1. While researching local community problems I came across this article and was intrigued by the opening line about Shakespeare. Ah, I thought, a comparison of modern Buffalo issues with Elizabethan morals and laws. Unfortunately, no such comparison existed.
    Mr. Stevenson's soapbox groaned under the weight of his own bigotry as he referred to 'whites' pejoratively five times and focused on an event that happened in the court building and not ECHC. Hardly accurate impartial reporting.
    And as for his eventual reference to Shakespeare in “What would Shakespeare say? Buffalo Thy Cover-ups Runneth Over.”? All I can say to that is that I'm not sure if you are showing ignorance about Shakespearean literature or the Bible as you quoted Psalms and not the Bard. So if you're going to compartmentalize the world into blacks and whites, do so with a little more integrity and learn the white authors before you misquote them.

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