No plans soon for repurposing of holding center

“This concept is a long way from being finalized"

Mike Baggerman
July 14, 2020 - 4:51 pm

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WBEN) – Representatives from the Erie County Sheriff’s Office said there is no significant effort being made to close the Erie County Holding Center, but are floating the idea.

“This concept is a long way from being finalized,” Superintendent Thomas Diina said to the Erie County Legislature. “The countywide budget issues imposed by the COVID-19 public health crisis required the sheriff’s office to provide a plan to reduce spending and that, in turn, led us to the conclusion that now is the time to put into motion the idea to consolidate jail operations at the correctional facility while opening the conversation about the repurposing of the downtown holding center.”

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Sheriff Tim Howard did not attend Tuesday's discussion between the sheriff's office and the legislature.

There has been no decision on a final process for the holding center, though officials said they plan to include conversations with multiple stakeholders in the public.

The long term plan is for inmates to be held in the Alden jail, located nearly 20 miles away. This had lawmakers in the county wondering what efforts there will be made to provide public transportation since there is no NFTA bus stop at the Alden jail. An oversight group for the jail also wondered if this will mean higher attorney costs since lawyers would now have to visit their clients 30 minutes away, instead of at a centralized location in Downtown Buffalo where most offices are.

Officials said they plan to engage in talks with the NFTA to address to lack of public transportation to the Alden jail. They also said the pandemic has allowed to attorneys to meet with their clients virtually and suggested it is something that could continue, though prisoners would also have the opportunity to meet with their lawyers.

“Family contact with loved ones is of paramount to us,” Diina said. “It’s good for the inmates. It’s good for the families. It promotes a calmer institutional atmosphere which is what we need in order to ensure a safer and more secure environment. We’re not done discussing things with NFTA. Hopefully we will have some type of service restored to Alden. Virtual access will be provided while we are in restrictions imposed by the pandemic.”

There are 491 total inmates in an Erie County jail, 335 of which are in Alden while the remainder are at the holding center. Low to medium risk inmates are held in Alden while those who are at a risk of harming themselves or others, or are mentally ill, are housed in Downtown Buffalo.

Diina stressed that the holding center is not closing. Instead, they are wondering how it can be repurposed to allow inmates to receive transitional services so they don’t offend once they are released.

The sheriff’s office submitted a plan to the county executive’s office which included budget cuts that were necessary due to the coronavirus pandemic. This is where the idea was highlighted that the holding center would move all their inmates to Alden. Undersheriff Mark Wipperman said they believe they can achieve the financial cuts through the consolidation.

“It’s still a work in progress but I have no game plan to share with you,” Wipperman said.

Legislative Chairwoman April Baskin said she was unhappy about the way the information about the proposed consolidation was shared and called out both the sheriff’s office and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz for their lack of transparency ahead of Tuesday’s meeting.

“It put a bad taste in my mouth,” Baskin said about the reveal of the information. “It made it difficult for me to get my head around it and to communicate it as a leader.”

Sheriff’s officials did not unveil exactly how much money would be saved with the consolidation. Their office is also planning cuts to jobs such as guards and nurses.

The planned consolidation is an idea that has been floated since 2016 and it appears that conversations will increase in the future.

Wipperman said they submitted their deficit reduction plan without knowing exactly how much would be cut across the county.

“Once we got the final number we were able to report back to our staff that no full-time bodies would be cut and take some of the anxiety away from the young folks who do a tremendous job,” Wipperman said. “There was never a hidden plan. I tried to be as transparent as possible with the unions. We met. I gave them the information. I also told the unions that this was a concept and idea we had to submit because if we lost 20 percent…life was going to be different in the office.”

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