By April N. M. Baskin, Chair, Erie County Legislature
Responding to the County’s 2020 budget deficit, the Erie County Sheriff’s Office has provided a proposal that would close much of the Erie County Holding Center in downtown Buffalo and relocate many of its detainees to the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden.
The COVID-19 pandemic and changes to New York State’s cash bail system have reduced the population in Erie County’s jails. As of June 8th, there were 300 detainees in the Holding Center, well below its capacity of 638 souls. The Erie County Correctional Facility, which can house 744 individuals, had at total of 224. With the county’s two jail facilities operating at 38% of capacity, a merger could theoretically generate budget savings for the County.
However, as Chair of the Erie County Legislature, I am obligated to consider the impact of this proposal on the fabric of our community as well as on our bottom line. Given that the majority of detainees at the Holding Center are people of color and City of Buffalo residents, we need a real conversation about the impact this might have on a community that is already struggling. We need to know this action will not further exacerbate the racial injustice of the criminal justice system.
Throughout our nation’s history, people of color have been subject to systemic barriers in access to education, housing and employment. Transportation inequities have played a key role in perpetuating this discrimination.
Multiple studies show that a detainee who maintains regular contact with family and friends is less likely to be a repeat offender. The proposed action will make it much harder for detainees to maintain contact with their family by significantly increasing the distance between their neighborhoods and where they are being detained.
Beyond detainees and their families, we have to consider the number of City of Buffalo residents who are employed at the Holding Center. Will they be able to easily manage a 30 minute commute if they have to depend on public transportation? Is the cost savings worth it if we add new numbers to the unemployment rolls?
We must consider the costs associated with transporting detainees from Alden to the courts in the City of Buffalo, whether the contracts of the two different unions who guard detainees at both facilities will need to be renegotiated, and what effects this move will have on agencies and organizations that serve detainees. Are we really closing the right facility, or would closing the Alden facility save the same amount of money without the disproportionate societal impact on minorities?